The Cavaliers (16-9, 10-5 ACC) matched their longest winning streak of the season and defeated Georgia Tech for a ninth consecutive time to remain within reach of claiming the ACC regular season championship for a second straight year.
“We talk about just pursuing and chasing quality, and if that results in a win, then all the better,” Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett said after the win at John Paul Jones Arena. “They’re understanding. I told them the bigger things, and what we need to do now is turn the screws on the little things.”
Jayden Gardner led Virginia with 26 points, the most by a Cavalier in an ACC game this season. The senior transfer from East Carolina shot 10 for 19 from the field and had game highs of seven rebounds and three blocks in addition to two assists without a turnover.
Kihei Clark added 15 points, 12 of which came in the second half. The senior point guard made 3 of 7 three-pointers, the last of which gave the Cavaliers a 57-49 lead with 2:34 remaining in the second half after Georgia Tech (10-14, 3-10) rallied within 49-47 with 5:44 to play.
Gardner scored on a layup and jumper immediately after the Yellow Jackets closed within two, and Francisco Caffaro sank 1 of 2 free throws before Clark’s three-pointer drew a frenzied reaction from the announced crowd of 14,253.
Virginia opened a 17-point lead in the first half and led by 13 at halftime before the Yellow Jackets began their rally.
“I was just taking the shot that comes to me, just trying to take what the defense gives us,” said Clark, who has scored in double figures in five of six games. “Obviously I knew we could use a big basket. Reece [Beekman] did a good job of driving and, when they converged on him, kicking it out.”
Virginia made six straight free throws over the final 1:07 and 21 of 23 overall to help offset 4-for-18 three-point shooting. The Cavaliers also improved to 17-2 in their past 19 games against Georgia Tech, which has dropped four of its past five.
In another defensive gem — Virginia has limited three of its past four opponents to 58 points or fewer — the Cavaliers forced 15 turnovers that led to 19 points. They finished plus-six in points off turnovers and had seven blocks and six steals.
They also owned a 12-5 margin in second-chance points thanks in large part to an 11-5 advantage in offensive rebounds. Gardner and Caffaro each collected a game-high four offensive rebounds, and Virginia held an overall rebounding margin of 32-24.
Guard Michael Devoe led the Yellow Jackets with 17 points, and Jordan Usher chipped in 11 points, five assists and three steals.
Here’s what else to know from Virginia’s win:
Virginia’s most skilled on-ball defender was tasked to guard Devoe over the final minutes and bothered the Yellow Jackets’ most dependable scorer several times. He forced a miss on a step-back jumper and closed out to induce an errant three-point attempt from the right corner.
Beekman finished with just four points while managing foul trouble but frequently has drawn praise from Bennett for impacting the outcome in ways other than scoring.
“I thought Reece, I would liked to have had him on [Devoe] more and longer,” Bennett said of foul trouble limiting the sophomore’s playing time. “He’s got to keep growing and learning in that area.”
Quadrant 1 chances ahead
With five games left in the regular season, the Cavaliers continue to seek coveted Quadrant 1 wins to add to their NCAA tournament résumé. They had no such opportunity against Georgia Tech, which entered at 152nd in the NCAA Net Rankings that help the selection committee determine at-large bids.
But Virginia can secure Q1 wins over its next three games, beginning Monday night against Virginia Tech (44 in the Net) in Blacksburg. It then plays at Miami (72) next Saturday before a rematch with seventh-ranked Duke (11) Feb. 23.
Home victories over opponents ranked 1-30 in the Net, 1-50 at a neutral site and 1-75 on the road are considered Q1 wins. The Cavaliers, who are ranked 80th in the Net, have two such triumphs this season, most recently beating Duke, 69-68, on Monday thanks to Beekman’s three-pointer with 1.1 seconds remaining.