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McFarling: Cavaliers soar into semis thanks to unlikely star

McFarling: Cavaliers soar into semis thanks to unlikely star

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — They chased their unlikely hero from one corner of the floor to the other, hopping, shouting, rejoicing.

The Virginia Cavaliers had botched their penultimate possession, floundered against the press, trailed the entire first half and surrendered a late lead, but all of that was forgotten in the mob that engulfed freshman Reece Beekman.

“That’s what March is,” UVa forward Sam Hauser said.

Yep. It’s how you finish. And the Cavaliers finished spectacularly on Thursday, riding Beekman’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to a 72-69 victory over Syracuse that advanced them to the ACC Tournament semifinals for the sixth time in seven years.

Moments earlier, Beekman had stood alone in the right corner. A young man who’d won four state championships at his Louisiana high school was about to knock every basketball highlight he’d ever had down one peg.

Except nobody really believed that, did they? This thing surely was heading to overtime — or so it seemed.

To that point in the game, Beekman had missed all five of the field goal attempts he’d taken. That’s why Syracuse was late to rotate and get a hand up. That’s why Beekman was as lonesome as he’ll ever be on a basketball court.

“Beekman is the one we want to shoot it there,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We don’t want to give anybody a shot, but he’s the one guy we would want to shoot it.”

The Cavaliers? Well, they really had no other choice. On their previous possession, they’d tried to execute a similar play after running the clock down. They wound up with a contested shot from Trey Murphy that never hit the rim, triggering a shot-clock violation that gave Syracuse its opportunity to tie the game.

So this time, when point guard Kihei Clark dribbled to his left and spotted Beekman in the opposite corner, he zipped the pass over there.

It was as good an option as any.

“If he keeps shooting, they’re eventually going to fall,” Hauser said. “He stuck with it. He knew he had to shoot it. He was open. He shot it in rhythm. He’s one of those kids that just keeps coming back.”

Beekman didn’t have the luxury — or potential hindrance — of mulling it over much. But as the pass came his way, he had just enough time to understand the gravity of his next act.

“I was just thinking, ‘It’s a big shot,’” Beekman said. “My coaches, everybody believed in me, so they wouldn’t have me out there for no reason. It was a big shot I had to make.”

And he did, erasing all the regrets the Cavaliers could have had with an alternate finish.

Like allowing Syracuse to control almost the entire first half. Like stumbling against the press — something we saw them do against Florida State earlier this year, and something we’ve certainly seen them do against Syracuse in the past.

In the postseason especially, the finish has a way of flushing all that stuff, like Mamadi Diakite’s buzzer-beater against Purdue did two years ago in the Elite Eight.

Because by this point, you pretty much are who you are. There’s no time to get in the gym and work on yourselves like there is in December. You’re too busy cramming for the next opponent, the next challenge, the next moment.

The Cavaliers are pretty good at that. So maybe they aren’t the defensive dynamos that we’ve become accustomed to. Maybe they are going to give up some 31-point games like they did Thursday to Buddy Boeheim — the player they knew they most needed to corral. And maybe it will cost them at some point later this month.

But not yet. Their unlikely hero made sure of that.

Contact sports columnist Aaron McFarling at 540-981-3423 or aaron.mcfarling@roanoke.com.

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