CHARLOTTESVILLE — With only one full-time starter back from last season and a roster stocked mostly with untested reserves and newcomers, Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett had expressed uncertainty about this season’s early stages, particularly when his team faces experienced opponents.
“The newness of our team, I think it showed,” Bennett said. “We just weren’t as connected and collectively good defensively, and you press a little bit.”
The Cavaliers led only briefly in the first half and played from behind the rest of the way to lose on opening night for the first time in nine seasons. They played uncharacteristically sloppy defense and were careless with ball security, yielding 14 turnovers that led to 22 points in Navy’s first victory over a ranked opponent since 1986.
Kadin Shedrick’s tip-in with 8:45 left drew Virginia even at 55, but the Midshipmen scored the next six points, including the last two baskets on putbacks. The Cavaliers missed eight consecutive field goal attempts in the closing minutes.
Jayden Gardner, a transfer from East Carolina, led Virginia with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Senior guard Kihei Clark (12 points) was the only other Cavaliers player to score in double figures; Virginia shot 41.2 percent from the field, including 4 for 16 from three-point range.
The Midshipmen went 11 for 21 from behind the arc and got a game-high 19 points from John Carter Jr., who sank 5 of 8 three-pointers. Sean Yoder added 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting, making all three of his three-point attempts.
Despite a significant size disadvantage, Navy outrebounded the Cavaliers 35-30 and prevailed in second-chance points 10-6 on the way to ending an eight-game slide in the series.
“We talked about mental and physical toughness coming into this environment,” Navy Coach Ed DeChellis said. “You make a mistake, you’ve got to let it roll off and move on to the next thing. That’s mental toughness. Physical toughness, you can’t let them out-tough us. We’ve got to win the rebounding war.”
Trailing by seven at halftime, Virginia cranked up the defensive pressure and forced the Midshipmen into repeated field goal attempts with the shot clock in the single digits. The Cavaliers also closed out on three-point shooters with far more gusto.
On the other end, Virginia got the ball into the painted area regularly, leading to layups or Navy fouls. The Cavaliers scored seven points at the foul line over a seven-minute stretch to tie the score at 53 with 10:46 remaining but were unable to get to the line much thereafter.
The Cavaliers also bypassed several clean looks from three-point range in the closing minutes. Clark had two chances but did not attempt a shot either time.
A blistering showing from three-point range in the first half allowed Navy to open a 37-29 lead with 4:52 to play. The Midshipmen went 8 for 12 from behind the arc, sinking four in a row early to put Virginia on its heels.
The Cavaliers responded with consecutive baskets to get within 37-33. The second of those field goals came on Reece Beekman’s dunk off a cross-court pass from Armaan Franklin, who moments earlier collected a steal to stall Navy’s bid to push the ball upcourt with an advantage in numbers.
Defensive mistakes down the stretch led to the Cavaliers trailing 42-35 at halftime.
“A couple times we just didn’t get to a shooter,” Bennett said. “Guys beat us quick outside. Those are some principles we have, and they just kind of attacked, got on the glass, some miscommunication in transition, just little things they exposed.”
Here’s what to know from Virginia’s loss:
Rotation comes into focus
The starters were all but certain at four spots entering the season: Clark, Beekman, Franklin (a transfer from Indiana) and Gardner. Shedrick was the fifth starter; he finished with seven points and seven rebounds after sitting for lengthy stretches of the first half with two fouls.
Guard Kody Stattmann was the first player off the bench. Forward Francisco Caffaro followed as Virginia’s second reserve to get into the game, but he committed three fouls in the first half in addition to two turnovers.
Guards Taine Murray and Carson McCorkle rounded out Bennett’s nine-man rotation. Murray is a freshman from New Zealand whom the Cavaliers envision as a three-point threat. He’s also familiar with the culture at Virginia given his friendship with Jack Salt, the starting center on the Cavaliers’ 2019 national championship team.
Navy measures up
DeChellis has made a habit of getting marquee programs on the Midshipmen’s nonconference schedule, including three straight ACC opponents to open this season. Navy plays Virginia Tech on Friday night in Annapolis before going on the road to face Louisville on Monday.
The Midshipmen now have three victories over power conference schools in the past five seasons; they beat Pittsburgh, 71-62, in 2017 and last year topped Georgetown, 78-71.
It’s no wonder Navy is a favorite again in the Patriot League behind four returning starters who helped the Midshipmen claim the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in March for the first time since 1997. The only starter not back is Cam Davis, who led Navy in scoring (17.1) and assists (2.7).