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Teel: Caffaro-led UVa survives bruising encounter with Hokies that shows how closely matched these rivals are

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Virginia Tech Virginia Basketball

Virginia Tech forward John Ojiako, right, looks to move the ball against Virginia’s Francisco Caffaro during the first half of Wednesday’s game at John Paul Jones Arena.

For reasons known only to residents of cyberspace, Virginia began Wednesday 47 spots behind Virginia Tech in the NET rankings employed by the NCAA. This despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Ranked 37th, the Hokies had no wins the NET classifies as Quadrant 1, or most impressive. The No. 84 Cavaliers had two, versus Providence on a neutral court and at Clemson.

UVa had three ACC victories to Tech’s none, and the Cavaliers’ overall and nonconference schedules are rated slightly better than the Hokies’.

The one data point that favored Tech was Navy as a common opponent. UVa opened the season with a home loss to the Midshipmen, and three days later, the Hokies defeated the Mids by 20 points on the road.

Vegas knew better.

The folks in the desert understood these state rivals are equally talented, equally flawed, and they made Virginia a 1-point favorite over Tech at John Paul Jones Arena.

Cavaliers 54, Hokies 52.

What no one knew was how this taffy pull would turn.

In 19 minutes on the court Saturday at North Carolina, UVa reserve center Francisco Caffaro committed four fouls and two turnovers, scored two points and grabbed zero, yes zero, rebounds.

Caffaro stands 7-foot-1 and weighs 242 pounds. A dude of that size should gather rebounds by accident, no matter the opponent.

Making matters worse at UNC, Tar Heels center Armando Bacot ravaged the entire Cavaliers interior for career-highs of 29 points and 22 boards, numbers not seen against Virginia since Tim Duncan 25 years ago.

Wednesday night, the Cavaliers encountered another elite low-post presence, Tech’s Keve Aluma, who by the way, dominated them last season with 29 points and 10 rebounds. It did not start well for the home team.

Sixteen seconds into the contest, Aluma used a simple pump fake to draw a foul from starting UVa center Kadin Shedrick. Less than three minutes later, officials whistled Shedrick for his second foul on an illegal screen.

Exit Shedrick, enter Caffaro. Within five minutes, Caffaro had five points and three rebounds. Moreover, his strength and bulk were giving Aluma fits.

So effective was Caffaro that Virginia coach Tony Bennett started him in the second half rather than Shedrick. So off-the-charts was Caffaro, a redshirt junior from Argentina, that he posted career-bests of 16 points, nine rebounds and 31 minutes. He was called for only two fouls and did not turn the ball over.

“A little more physical than we’re accustomed to,” Hokies coach Mike Young said of the rugged game. “... I had some eyebrows raised over a couple of plays at the rim that didn’t go our way.”

Indeed, the officials allowed considerable contact by both teams, and Caffaro was wise to take advantage. His footwork will never conjure images of Kevin McHale or Hakeem Olajuwon, so if the stripes are going to let you bang, you might as well, especially when you’re 242.

Aluma scored a game-high 22 points but shot a modest 9-of-20 from the field as Caffaro challenged most every shot. Never was that more evident than with 12 minutes remaining, when Shedrick got lost in rotation, clearing a driving path for Aluma off the right wing.

But as Aluma glided toward the rim, Caffaro met him in mid-air, body-to-body. Aluma missed.

“He’s a crafty player,” Caffaro said of Aluma. “He’s talented and uses his footwork pretty well and his fake. So I just worked to stay down. I tried to slide with him every time I could and just didn’t get lifted. He’s a little shorter, so I knew I could just stay down and put my hands up.”

This is what Bennett demands of his post players: aggressive defense, rebounding and screening. And that’s what was AWOL at North Carolina, where the Tar Heels scored 14 second-chance points on 11 offensive rebounds.

Wednesday, the Hokies managed two second-chance points on six offensive boards.

Scoring from the likes of Shedrick and Caffaro is a bonus, but what an essential bonus Caffaro’s offense was in a game that featured 10 ties and 13 lead changes, a game the Hokies would have won had Hunter Cattoor made his open 3-pointer in the waning seconds.

Caffaro’s scoring and a perimeter jumper by Kody Stattmann gave UVa 18 bench points. Conversely, Tech’s reserves contributed two points, a dunk by John Ojiako.

Of all the Hokies’ concerns at 8-7 overall, 0-4 in the ACC, none is larger than this: Their reserves have scored 18 points combined in those four league games.

Tech’s starting five is pretty dang good, and Cattoor’s stat line of 10 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and only one turnover in 38 minutes Wednesday was exceptional. But Young has got to get more from his bench.

That UVa (10-6, 4-2) won on a night in which its top scorer this season, Jayden Gardner, shot 2-of-10 and committed four turnovers and four fouls is a tribute to not only Caffaro but also the backcourt of Armaan Franklin, Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark, who combined for nine assists and just one TO while scoring 32 points.

The NET was not impressed.

While Virginia Tech fell two spots to 39th in Thursday’s updated rankings, Virginia jumped a meager two to 82nd.

Hardly a just reward.

Twitter: @ByDavidTeel

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