ANN ARBOR, Mich. — His easing as he dribbled near the top of the key was just enough of a lull to catch Michigan unprepared.
The home Wolverines couldn’t have anticipated what Virginia guard Reece Beekman was plotting next.
“Sometimes it’s just there,” Beekman said with a grin after the No. 3 Cavaliers’ 70-68 win over Michigan at the Crisler Center on Tuesday night, “and I explode up either for a layup or a dunk.”
And on this first-half possession Beekman split four defenders before driving past the foul line, through the paint and toward the basket for a jaw-dropping two-handed slam, in which Wolverines forwards Tarris Reed Jr. and Joey Baker each made a late attempt to block but were unsuccessful.
“Oh man. I loved it,” Hoos coach Tony Bennett said about Beekman’s dunk. “I’ve seen him do it a couple of times, but that one, that’s a two-hander. That’s sneaky athleticism and that’s the best kind, and he surprised you with that.”
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What wasn’t surprising was the junior standout’s stellar performance.
His offense kept UVa competitive and within striking distance during the first half, and his strong defense helped the Cavaliers seal their victory in the final minute while playing through significant ankle pain.
“I had to [tough it out],” Beekman said.
Said Bennett: “He’s an upperclassman and he’s playing like that.”
Beekman’s 18 points were a team best. He was 7-of-10 from the field and racked up five assists, including one on forward Jayden Gardner’s go-ahead bucket with 40 seconds left.
Beekman followed that with the game-clinching steal on Michigan’s subsequent possession and derailed Wolverines guard Jett Howard’s desperation 3 when the clocked ticked down to zero. Beekman got his hand on the ball as Howard started his shot attempt.
An All-ACC Defensive team selection last season, Beekman still “is doing his job” on that end of the floor, according to Bennett, but has also evolved offensively since last winter.
Ten of his 18 points came on layups or dunks as the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder showed off his ability to navigate the opposing defense to get to the basket.
“He’s just more aggressive,” Bennett said. “He’s attacking more. He’s more athletic. He’s stronger.”
“And my teammates and my coaches always tell me to continue to be aggressive,” Beekman said.
His 3-point shooting has improved, too.
He’s 8-of-14 (57%) from deep through UVa’s first six games, and that mark is up from the 34% 3-point-shooting rate he had in 2021-22.
“He’s picking his spots and being assertive,” Gardner said. “He’s hitting the 3 ball and then even though his 3-point shooting has improved, he’s still getting downhill, being crafty and looking for his teammates as well. He’s a complete guard.”
Bennett said: “He’s playing some really good basketball for sure.”
Beekman said one area he’d like to keep working on, though, is his dunking like he did on Tuesday to make it a more frequent part of his game.
“I’m trying to rep that out more to make it more of a consistent thing,” he said. “That is the next step for me.”
For now, he’s happy the Cavaliers erased an 11-point halftime deficit to pocket a come-from-behind win in a hostile maize-and-blue crazed crowd ahead of ACC action, which begins Saturday at home against Florida State.
“We’ve got a lot of returning guys,” Beekman said, “and I feel like the confidence that Coach Bennett wants us to play with and that the confidence we have in each other took us a long way.”