Freshman Ryan Dunn is bringing ‘intensity and passion’ to UVA’s lineup as Cavaliers visit Virginia Tech

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As he moved toward the basket, freshman reserve forward Ryan Dunn caught the eye of guard Reece Beekman across the court and pointed to the rafters.

He was motioning for Beekman to lob an alley-oop his way, and the two hooked up for a picturesque slam that helped fuel a first-half run during No. 6 Virginia’s 76-57 win over Boston College at John Paul Jones Arena last Saturday.

The 6-foot-8, 208-pound Dunn rose to the basket with such force. It was a reminder of how emphatically the Freeport, New York, native can impact a game coming off the bench. His season has been full of highlight-reel dunks, and his defense continues to blossom, which has led to more generous playing time from coach Tony Bennett.

“I try to bring as much energy as I can to the team,” Dunn said. “Just being able to go out and play with that type of intensity and passion is a big thing for me.”

Bennett said Dunn is a nascent facsimile of former UVA stars who impacted games with their energy and defensive versatility. Players like Akil Mitchell, De’Andre Hunter, Justin Anderson and Isaiah Wilkins, to name a few.

“Our defense has always been at its best when we’ve had an active, mobile, athletic kind of forward at the four spot. … He’s starting to understand and embrace that [role],” Bennett said.

Dunn gives the Cavaliers a jolt with his electric offense and his ability to make momentum-changing defensive plays. To wit: In 15 minutes against BC, he tallied six points, four rebounds, two steals and ran down guard T.J. Bickerstaff on a fast break to block his shot from behind.

In the last five games, Dunn has averaged 19.2 minutes, five points and 4.2 rebounds, with eight blocked shots and four steals.

“[Opponents’] turnovers just [gravitate] towards him,” said UVA fifth-year forward Jayden Gardner. “He generates blocks and steals. He was running back and they threw the ball, and he put his hands up and got a steal. His ability on defense to just be a nightmare is something we need. It’s scary to see what he’s going to be down the line.”

Dunn had three blocks and three steals in 25 minutes in a home win against Virginia Tech on Jan. 18. The Cavaliers and Hokies square off again at noon Saturday in Blacksburg.

Bennett offered Dunn a scholarship in July of 2021, but the window closed on that offer when forward Isaac Traudt committed later that summer.

“I had to call [Dunn and his family] and tell them, and his father [Edmund] called me back an hour later and said, ‘If he would consider coming on a visit and walking on without a scholarship, would you still take him?’ I said, ‘Hmm, let me think about that.’ I said ‘absolutely,’” Bennett said.

Dunn committed to the Cavaliers in the fall of 2021 without the guarantee of a scholarship. He was certain UVA was where he wanted to be, so he took a leap of faith and made the journey to Charlottesville.

As fate would have it, a scholarship became available the spring before Dunn enrolled, relieving what could have been a significant burden. With that potential stress behind him, the dynamic big man has been able to pour himself into school and basketball.

“Once I got that call that they had no scholarships, it was kind of stressful,” Dunn said. “I felt like I let an opportunity slip, but my father and my mom were like, ‘We’re going to do the best we can. We feel like this is the place you need to be,’ so we just said, ‘Hey, if we have to pay, we’ll pay.’

“We prayed to make sure a scholarship opened up, and by the grace of God, a scholarship opened up in the spring, so I think it’s just a blessing that I got an opportunity to be here and to play.”

Dunn, the younger brother of Cincinnati Reds pitcher Justin Dunn, was playing on the AAU circuit when Bennett first learned of his talents. University of Pennsylvania coach Steve Donahue put in a plug for Dunn, and Bennett had good reason to jump at the chance to see him play.

Bennett said Donahue, a former head coach at Boston College, made a convincing case for another player six years earlier — future Cavaliers All-American forward De’Andre Hunter.

“I ran into Coach Donahue and said, ‘Any other De’Andre Hunters out there?,’” Bennett said. “He said, ‘There’s a guy; he’s not quite like De’Andre, but you should take a look. He’s not getting recruited, but I think his upside as he grows into his body could be really good.’ It was Ryan Dunn.”

Dunn has been an important player off the bench this season for the Cavaliers, particularly over the last few weeks. He is averaging 13.3 minutes, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, but those numbers have all been on the rise.

Just like his trajectory on an alley-oop slam, Dunn’s UVA basketball impact is trending upward.

“Even though he’s young and his offense is still coming along, defensively he’s been tremendous,” Gardner said. “He’s all over and active and just helping guys on the court. I think with the increased playing time, he’s getting more comfortable out there.”

Virginia Tech's Sean Pedulla, right, dribbles while defended by Syracuse's Maliq Brown during the second half of a game Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Blacksburg.

No. 6 Virginia (17-3, 9-2 ACC) at Virginia Tech (13-9, 3-8 ACC)

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BOTTOM LINE: Virginia Tech hosts the No. 6 Virginia Cavaliers after Sean Pedulla scored 20 points in Virginia Tech’s 92-83 loss to Miami. The Hokies are 10-2 at home. Virginia Tech is sixth in the ACC in scoring at 73.9 points while shooting 47.2% from the field.

The Cavaliers are 9-2 against ACC opponents. Virginia is 14-1 when it wins the turnover battle and averages 8.9 turnovers per game.

TOP PERFORMERS: Pedulla is scoring 15.7 points per game with 3.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. The Hokies’ Grant Basile is averaging 14.4 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 48.2% over the last 10 games.

UVA’s Armaan Franklin is shooting 42.5% and averaging 13.1 points, while Kihei Clark is averaging 11.4 points over the last 10 games.

LAST 10 GAMES: Hokies: 2-8, averaging 71.0 points, 31.6 rebounds, 15.7 assists, 5.7 steals and 3.0 blocks per game while shooting 45.3% from the field. Their opponents have averaged 73.6 points per game.

Cavaliers: 9-1, averaging 70.7 points, 29.4 rebounds, 17.7 assists, 7.0 steals and 4.2 blocks per game while shooting 46.5% from the field. Their opponents have averaged 60.6 points.

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