LAS VEGAS (AP)Under most circumstances, Virginia would have celebrated its tournament victory Sunday and carried the good feelings back to Charlottesville.
But after the No. 16 Cavaliers used a late 13-point run to defeat No. 19 Illinois 70-61 to win the Continental Tire Main Event, coach Tony Bennett knew the overnight trip back home would be far from joyous with the campus still grieving the shooting deaths of three football players.
The Cavaliers beat No. 5 Baylor and the Illini to earn the trophy.
”It feels great in the moment, but more so now, we know what truly matters,” Bennett said. ”When you have a momentary celebration like this, it enables you to enjoy it and it seems to matter, but in the big picture, it doesn’t.”
The game was played exactly a week after football players Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry were fatally shot after a field trip to see a play in Washington. Two others were wounded.
Former Virginia football player Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. faces three counts of second-degree murder and other charges.
Virginia players wore shirts to honor those killed and locked arms in tribute before the game.
The team canceled its game Monday against Northern Iowa, but chose to play in Las Vegas. Forward Kadin Shedrick said Friday that being in Las Vegas was therapeutic.
”Just for the community, I felt like they needed that,” said Virginia guard Reece Beekman, chosen the tournament MVP after scoring 17 points. Playing Friday at home, he said, is ”going to be hard for the fans, families, football players. We’re going to do our best to show support when we can.”
In addition to Beekman, Kihei Clark and Gardner each had 12 for Virginia.
Jayden Epps had 14 points and Coleman Hawkins 10 for the Illini.
The Cavaliers (4-0) trailed 58-56 with 3 1/2 minutes left when they broke away from Illinois (4-1). The game was close throughout, with neither team pulling away until Virginia’s late run.
Both teams’ top scorers from Friday’s games also were largely held in check.
Virginia’s Armaan Franklin, who scored 26 points against Baylor, had just nine against Illinois.
Illini guard Terrence Shannon Jr. also scored nine points after getting 29 against UCLA in going 8 of 9 from 3-point range. Shannon made just 1 of 5 on Sunday.
”Our emphasis was to not let him get easy, comfortable, rhythm 3s,” Gardner said. ”I think Reece did a good job making him make tough, contested shots. We made it hard for him.”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood called this a learning experience for Shannon, who entered the game averaging 24.3 points and having made 29 of 39 free throws. He took two free throw attempts Sunday and missed both.
”Because you make a lot of 3s one night, you can’t forget where a guy’s bread is buttered, and that’s driving that thing to the rim,” Underwood said. ”He’s got to grow from this. We’re expecting him to be really, really good, and we’re counting on him being really good. Good players don’t have off nights in big games.”
Virginia became the first team from the Atlantic Coast Conference to win this tournament, which is in its ninth year. The Pac-12 Conference won three of the previous four tournaments – Arizona State in 2018, Colorado in 2019 and Arizona last year. Baylor of the Big 12 Conference in 2020 was the only team from another conference during that stretch, and the Bears’ hopes to become the first two-time winner ended in Friday’s 86-79 loss to Virginia.
THE BIG PICTURE
Illinois’ freshman backcourt of Epps and Skyy Clark received value experience during tournament in which all four teams are ranked. They also showed they could perform well against that kind of competition, which should serve them well in March. They combined for 22 points against Virginia, with Epps leading the team in scoring while making 6 of 13 shots.
Virginia took 44 more free throw attempts than their two tournament opponents, including 23 more than the Illini had (32-9). Bennett said that wouldn’t necessarily be part of the Cavaliers’ strategy moving forward, but because Illinois and Baylor switch a lot, Virginia found favorable matchups that resulted in fouls.
Both teams take a noticeable step down in competition levels on Friday, with Illinois hosting Lindenwood of the Ohio Valley Conference and Virginia returning home to play Maryland-Eastern Shore of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
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