On a night when Virginia’s leading scorer was held to just four points and Virginia Tech’s Keve Aluma was a force with 22 points, the Cavaliers got a much-needed boost from the most unlikely of sources.
Francisco Caffaro came into the game averaging 3.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. For the most part this season, the redshirt junior has been little more than a replacement center, who got the majority of his minutes due to Kadin Shedrick’s frequent foul troubles. Such was the case when Caffaro first checked into the game on Wednesday night after Shedrick picked up his second foul just three minutes into the contest.
By the end of the game, however, Caffaro was on the floor for a completely different reason. The Argentinian seven-footer was having the game of his life and was clearly the best option at center for Tony Bennett’s Wahoos on both ends of the floor. Caffaro finished with a career-high 16 points and nine rebounds and made clutch defensive plays against Aluma down the stretch to help the Cavaliers pick up a pivotal and hard-fought 54-52 victory over the Hokies at John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday night.
As is to be expected when you pit the ACC’s two best scoring defenses against each other, this game was a slow-grind defensive battle from start to finish. With the exception of a brief eight-point UVA lead in the first half, the Hoos and Hokies stayed within one or two possessions of each other on the scoreboard for the majority of the game.
After Aluma scored a layup to put Virginia Tech ahead 9-7, Francisco Caffaro scored five straight points to spark a 10-0 Virginia run, capped off by an Armaan Franklin transition three-pointer off of a steal by Kihei Clark. That would be Franklin’s lone three-pointer of the night, as the Indiana transfer continued to struggle from the perimeter, but Franklin still contributed 15 points and five rebounds.
The UVA run gave the Cavaliers a 17-9 lead, but that eight-point advantage would be the largest of the game by either team and it did not last for long. The Hokies responded with a 7-0 run of their own, including back-to-back jumpers by Hunter Cattoor, who recorded 10 points, six rebounds, and five assists in the game.
From that point on, no team would hold a lead of more than four points for the rest of the game. There were 10 ties and 13 lead changes in a back-and-forth affair that turned out to be one of the most intense and physical editions of the Commonwealth Clash in recent memory.
With neither team shooting particularly well from the perimeter (VT 7/19, UVA 3/13), the game was fought in the trenches down low.
That type of game is usually no problem for Virginia’s leading scorer, Jayden Gardner, who came into the game averaging 15.0 points per game. Instead, Gardner was held in check by Virginia Tech’s Justyn Mutts and the East Carolina transfer scored only four points on 2/10 shooting from the field.
Meanwhile, Aluma continued to make hook shots and layups in the paint throughout the second half, and even stepped out to the corner and splashed a three-pointer.
The Cavaliers were able to keep pace with the Hokies offensively due to stellar performances by two players not normally known for their scoring contributions: Reece Beekman and Francisco Caffaro.
Early in the second half, Beekman got loose on a backdoor cut and finished with a strong dunk over Keve Aluma. One minute later, Beekman jumped a passing lane, stealing the ball and streaking down the court for another dunk.
Beekman filled the stat sheet with 11 points, five rebounds, five assists, one block, and two steals to maintain his place as the ACC’s leader in steals.
Caffaro scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half and went 4/6 at the free throw line, but his most important contributions came on the defensive end against Aluma late in the game.
Aluma made a driving layup with his left hand to give Virginia Tech a 52-48 advantage, matching the Hokies’ largest lead of the game with just 3:14 remaining.
Virginia Tech would not score again for the rest of the game.
Caffaro drew a foul on the next possession and made one of two at the free throw line. After a Virginia Tech turnover, Jayden Gardner drove inside and dumped the ball off to Caffaro, who finished at the rim to pull the Cavaliers to within one with 2:21 left.
On the ensuing possession for the Hokies, Virginia doubled Aluma in the post for the first time all game, bringing Gardner over to help Caffaro box Aluma into the corner, resulting in a turnover as Aluma lost the ball out of bounds.
Armaan Franklin was fouled on a floater and made both free throws to give UVA a 53-52 lead. On the next trip down for Virginia Tech, Aluma went back to work on Caffaro and got a decent look with his right hook that had been working for him all game, but it rimmed out. Virginia ran the shot clock down on its next possession and Reece Beekman then had his shot blocked, leading to a shot clock violation with 38 seconds remaining.
Virginia Tech got the ball back again trailing by just one point and, once again, the Hokies went back to Aluma, who attempted to drive on Caffaro from the right wing. Caffaro stayed with Aluma, who slipped and fell as he drove towards the basket and was called for a travel.
Kihei Clark was fouled on the in-bounds pass and made the first free throw, but missed the second. With Virginia Tech down just two points with less than 15 seconds remaining, the Hokies ran a play for Hunter Cattoor to get the ball off of a screen and the play generated a relatively clean look for Cattoor from three to win the game. His shot was just off the mark, but the Hokies kept the ball alive and it found its way to Storm Murphy, who also had a good look at a another game-winning three-pointer. Murphy’s shot glanced off the right side of the iron as time expired and Virginia escaped with the dramatic 54-52 victory.
Virginia’s performance, especially on the glass, was a vast improvement from the Cavaliers’ showing against North Carolina on Saturday. UVA outrebounded Virginia Tech 31-29 and had nine second chance points to just two for the Hokies. Behind Caffaro’s strong performance, the Cavalier bench unit outscored the Hokies’ bench 18-2. Additionally, Virginia scored 14 points off of 12 Virginia Tech turnovers as compared to just three points off of turnovers for the Hokies.
With the win, Virginia improves to 10-6 overall and 4-2 in ACC play. The Cavaliers also avenged last year’s loss to Virginia Tech (8-7, 0-4), who remain winless in conference play this season.
Up next, Virginia remains at home to host Wake Forest on Saturday at 4:30pm.
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