Call it a tale of two teams.
At their best, the 1995-96 Cavaliers were capable of playing with the elite teams in the country. That was never more evident than in Virginia’s final home game of the regular season, a 67-49 upset of 10th-ranked Wake Forest. The Cavaliers shot a season-high 60.5 percent from the field, including 72 percent in the second half, against the Deacons. In addition, a strong Virginia defensive effort helped limit Wake Forest to 29 percent shooting from the field. “We were completely outplayed in every phase of the game,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Odom said afterwards.
At their worst, the Cavaliers were a team beset with numerous on- and off-the-court obstacles.
It was the latter “team” that contributed to Virginia’s first losing season (12-15 overall, 6-10 ACC) in six years under head coach Jeff Jones. UVa also failed to make postseason play (either NCAA or NIT) for the first time since 1987-88.
In between these two extremes, however, was perhaps the team’s true identity: a relatively young, but promising squad which–despite high preseason expectations–was unable to reach its full potential.
After winning a share of the ACC regular season title and rolling to the NCAA Midwest Regional finals in 1994-95, Virginia was ranked in numerous top-20 polls (including 12th by The Associated Press) during the 1995-96 preseason. In retrospect, such projections may have been overly optimistic considering that UVa lost four of its top five scorers and rebounders from the year before.
Up front, the 1995-96 Cavaliers lost starting forwards Junior Burrough and Jason Williford, and key reserve center-forward Yuri Barnes. The talented trio accounted for 73 percent of Virginia’s inside scoring (966 of 1,332 points) and 68 percent of UVa’s inside rebounding (673 of 994 rebounds) in 1994-95. Burrough, who led the Cavaliers in both points (18.1 ppg) and rebounds (8.7 rpg), was chosen by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 1995 NBA draft.
In the backcourt, Virginia was without Cory Alexander, who opted to forego his final year of college eligibility after earning his bachelor’s degree in May of 1995. Alexander finished second on the team in scoring (16.6 ppg) and assists (110) in 1994-95 despite missing the final 14 games of the season with a broken ankle. He was selected in the first round of the 1995 NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs.
Instead of making excuses, however, the Cavalier coaching staff worked hard to find answers. “This year’s team has to establish it’s own identity, develop it’s own team chemistry and find ways to win basketball games,” said Jones in the 1995-96 basketball preseason.
Even with the departure of Cory Alexander to the NBA, Virginia featured an impressive array of returning perimeter talent, including junior point guard Harold Deane and junior swingman Jamal Robinson, and sophomore shooting guard Curtis Staples. The Cavaliers were also excited about the addition of highly-prized freshman guard Courtney Alexander, a high school All-American from Durham, N.C.
Deane joined center Chris Alexander as one of two returning starters from Virginia’s 1995 “Elite Eight” team. He was coming off an outstanding sophomore season in which he earned second-team All-ACC honors and finished third in scoring (16.0 ppg) behind Burrough and Cory Alexander. Staples was also coming off a big year after leading the conference with a school-record 103 three-point field goals as a freshman reserve.
Things were less certain up front where Chris Alexander and sophomore Norman Nolan–a reserve forward in 1994-95–were the only returning players with any significant playing experience. A fifth-year graduate student and team captain, Alexander was regarded as one of the ACC’s best defensive players. He entered his final collegiate season ranked third on UVa’s career blocked shots list with 99. Nolan had played in 33 games as a freshman in 1994-95, averaging 2.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
“I think our backcourt is as good as any in the nation,” said Jones in the preseason, “but the key to the season will be how well our inside players develop.”
As the season unfolded, Virginia’s lack of a consistent inside scoring game would become its Achilles’ heel. The Cavaliers finished the 1995-96 season ranked seventh in the ACC in scoring offense (69.4 ppg) and ninth in field goal percentage (.416). Virginia displayed the same tough defense, however, that has been a trademark of UVa teams under Jones. The Cavaliers held their opponents to 39.4 percent shooting from the field and a 68.8 points per game average. Virginia finished second in the ACC in field goal percentage defense and third in scoring defense.
With opposing defenses concentrating on stopping UVa’s perimeter game, the starting backcourt tandem of Deane and Staples struggled shooting the ball but carried much of UVa’s offensive load just the same. They finished as the team’s top two scorers, respectively, combining for 30.7 points per game despite only shooting 35.8 percent from the field. Named a second-team All-ACC selection for the second consecutive season, Deane led the Cavaliers in scoring (16.7 ppg), assists (99) and free throw shooting percentage (80.8). His scoring average was the third-highest by a Virginia point guard since 1970-71.
Staples finished second on the team in scoring with an average of 14.0 ppg and led the ACC in three-point field goals made per game (3.0) for the second year in a row.
Starting for most of the season at the small forward position was Courtney Alexander, who earned a spot on the ACC All-Freshman Team. He averaged 13.9 points per game and led UVa in field goal percentage, shooting 48.7 percent from the field. His scoring average is the fourth-highest by a freshman in school history. Over the last nine games of the season, Alexander put together one of the most impressive strings of offensive performances ever by a Virginia rookie. During that span, he averaged 19.9 points per game and made 52 percent of his shots from the field.
Virginia’s primary frontcourt scoring threat was Nolan, who averaged 9.5 points per game while leading the Cavaliers with a 7.0 rebounds per game average.
Chris Alexander continued his strong defensive play as UVa’s starting center, averaging 5.9 rebounds per game and leading the team in blocked shots for the third year in a row with 49. Alexander finished his career with 148 blocks, second only in school history to three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson.
Emerging as a valuable “sixth man” for the Cavaliers was Robinson, who played in 26 games and averaged 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest.
Reserve help at forward came mostly from freshman Scott Johnson, who averaged 3.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 19 games.
Backing up Chris Alexander at center was 7-4 red-shirt freshman center Chase Metheney, who averaged 1.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per game in addition to blocking 20 shots in just 176 minutes of play.
Virginia opened its season on November 24, by hosting Tennessee-Martin at University Hall. UVa cruised to an 84-65 win as it placed six players in double-figure scoring. Staples led the way with 17 points followed by 15 from Courtney Alexander. Nolan and Johnson each grabbed 11 rebounds.
Virginia next hosted William & Mary on November 27, and had little trouble dispatching the Tribe 87-58. The Cavaliers were led by Deane and Staples with 17 and 16 points, respectively. Metheney grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds and Nolan added 10 as the Cavaliers snared a season-high 56 boards.
Virginia’s first real test of the year came against second-ranked Kansas in the DIRECTV Great Eight Tournament. The 15th-ranked Cavaliers started off slowly against the Jayhawks as they trailed 35-20 at halftime. Virginia turned up the heat in the second half making 20 of 24 free throws. Deane made one of two free throws with 1:52 remaining to pull the Cavaliers to within one at 65-64. That’s as close as Virginia would get as Kansas escaped with a 72-66 win. Deane scored 23 points to lead four Cavaliers in double figures. For the third consecutive game, Nolan recorded double figures in rebounding and scoring. His 11 boards helped Virginia out-rebound the taller Jayhawks 39-37.
Despite the loss, the Cavaliers held on to the 15th spot in the The Associated Press basketball poll as they readied themselves for a December 5 home game with Vanderbilt. Virginia struggled with its perimeter shooting throughout the game, connecting on just one of 18 three-point attempts. The cold shooting resulted in a 61-48 setback at the hands of the Commodores.
The Cavaliers bounced back with consecutive wins over Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Deane and Staples led the way in scoring with Deane knocking down 27 and Staples adding 18 in Virginia’s 67-52 win at Richmond. Center Chris Alexander established career highs with 14 rebounds and eight blocked shots. He moved past Steve Castellan into second place on the school’s all-time blocked shots list behind Ralph Sampson.
VCU nearly gave itself an early Christmas present when the Rams visited University Hall on December 21. The Rams jumped to an eight-point halftime lead on the strength of 50 percent field goal shooting (18 of 36). The second half was a different story, however, as a stifling Cavalier defense held the Rams to just over 22 percent shooting from the field after intermission. Virginia outscored the Rams by 23 points in the second half to rally for an 80-65 victory and improve their record to 4-2 on the season. Nolan led Virginia with a career-high 21 points while Deane came off the bench to score 16.
The Cavaliers took their 4-2 mark to the Roanoke Civic Center on December 28, to take on state rival Virginia Tech. Deane led Virginia with 20 points while Courtney Alexander added 12, but it wasn’t enough as the Hokies placed four players in double-figure scoring. Ace Custis led the way for Virginia Tech with 18 points and 11 rebounds. The Cavaliers continued to shoot poorly, hitting on just 19 of 55 field goal attempts. The 72-64 loss dropped Virginia out of the polls.
Liberty University came to University Hall on December 30, and trailed the Cavaliers by only seven points at halftime. Virginia outscored the Flames 40-19 in the second half, however, en route to a 76-48 victory. Courtney Alexander scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for UVa. Nolan and Deane added 18 and 10 points respectively as Virginia improved its record to 5-3 before heading into conference play.
Virginia opened ACC play on January 3, with a home game against Florida State. The first half saw Virginia take a tenuous three-point lead at halftime. The Cavaliers got into foul trouble in the second half with Nolan, Deane and Staples each picking up four fouls. The Seminoles took advantage and came away with a 69-64 conference road win. UVa was paced by Robinson’s 17 points off the bench, and 10 each from Courtney Alexander and Deane.
The Cavaliers hosted N.C. State on January 6. With his team still struggling offensively from the outside, Jones made a concerted effort to get the ball inside to Nolan, and it worked. Virginia led the Wolfpack 36-30 at halftime. Despite 29 points from N.C. State’s Todd Fuller, UVa held on and notched its first ACC win by a score of 73-69. Nolan grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds and scored 16 points. Deane shot 50 percent from the field and scored a team-high 26 points.
The Cavaliers traveled to Littlejohn Coliseum on January 10, to take on the Clemson Tigers. Deane scored a career-high 39 points and tied his career high in rebounds with nine, but it wasn’t enough. After leading by two points at halftime, Virginia was outscored by 12 in the second half and fell to the Tigers 89-79.
Duke visited Charlottesville on January 13, hoping to add to Virginia’s struggles, but it was the Blue Devils who found themselves on the short end of a 77-66 score. Deane led the Cavaliers in scoring with 20 points, while Robinson cleaned the glass with nine boards. The win improved Virginia’s record to 7-5 overall and 2-2 in the ACC.
Following the win over Duke, Virginia suffered its longest losing streak of the season, falling at home to North Carolina (67-53), on the road against Georgia Tech (90-70), Wake Forest (81-64) and Connecticut (76-46), and at home against Maryland (80-72).
Having dropped to 7-10 overall and 2-6 in the ACC, UVa played at Florida State on February 3, in dire need of a win. Virginia overcame a 28-21 halftime deficit to snap its five-game losing streak with a 64-59 victory over the Seminoles. Deane, who connected on five of eight shots from the field in the second half, finished with a game-high 25 points.
Virginia hosted in-state rival Old Dominion on February 5, handily defeating the Monarchs 87-49. Courtney Alexander poured in 19 points while Robinson came off the bench to score 17.
The Cavaliers evened their record at 10-10 with a gutsy 84-82 double-overtime victory over N.C. State at Reynolds Coliseum on February 8. UVa trailed 38-32 at halftime before tying the game at 64 at the end of regulation. Virginia trailed for much of the first overtime until Nolan tied the game at 73 on a layup with just over 15 seconds left. The second overtime period saw several lead changes before the Wolfpack’s Todd Fuller tied the game at 82 with 20 seconds left to play. Deane then scored on a short jumper from inside the paint with one second remaining to give Virginia an 84-82 double-overtime win. It was the Cavaliers’ 11th consecutive overtime win, continuing an ACC-record streak which started during the 1991-92 season.
“I can’t explain how good this feels,” said Courtney Alexander following the emotional victory. “We had been struggling so much, but we showed a lot of poise tonight.”
The Cavaliers were led offensively against the Wolfpack by Deane’s 29 points, 11 of which came from the charity stripe. Courtney Alexander added 20, followed by 16 from Staples and 12 from Nolan. Virginia shot nearly 64 percent from the floor in overtime and made 15 of 17 free throws in the game.
The Cavaliers returned home on February 10, to face Clemson and attempt to exact a measure of revenge on the Tigers for an earlier defeat. Deane and Courtney Alexander scored 20 points each in leading Virginia to a 62-51 triumph and the Cavaliers’ fourth consecutive win. Virginia improved to 11-10 and had a winning record for the first time since January 17 (7-6).
The Cavaliers took their four-game winning streak to Durham, N.C., on February 14. Courtney Alexander, playing in his hometown for the first time as a collegian, scored a career-high 30 points. The Cavaliers appeared on their way to a fifth straight win, leading the Blue Devils 40-28 at halftime on the strength of 17 points from Alexander and 14 from Deane. Virginia shot 56 percent from the field in the first half. The second half was a different story, however, as Duke held the Cavaliers to just 26 percent field goal shooting, including 0-8 from three-point range. The Blue Devils outscored Virginia 51-29 in the second half and snapped the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak 79-69.
UVa traveled to Chapel Hill on February 17 and suffered a 71-66 loss to North Carolina. Staples led four Cavaliers in double-figure scoring with 21 points. With the loss, the Cavaliers fell to 11-12 overall and 5-8 in the ACC.
Virginia returned home on February 21 to face Georgia Tech. Courtney Alexander and Staples got the Cavaliers off to a fast start as UVa raced to a 15-4 lead just five minutes into the game. The Cavaliers hit on 56 percent of their field goal attempts to take a 36-32 advantage at the break. Alexander tallied 14 first half points and Staples added 12 to pace the Cavaliers. The second half was all Georgia Tech as the Yellow Jackets seemingly could not miss. Matt Harpring finished with 30 points and Eddie Elisma added 22 as Georgia Tech shot almost 71 percent from the floor and nearly 67 percent from three-point range in the second half of an 84-75 victory over the Cavaliers. Alexander came close to matching his career high with 28 points and Staples added a season-high 22 for Virginia. It was a disappointing loss to be sure, but the Cavaliers had one more surprise left.
Virginia hosted 10th-ranked Wake Forest on February 24, in the Cavaliers’ final home game of the season. The Deacons, led by center Tim Duncan–the eventual 1995 ACC Player of the Year, had already beaten the Cavaliers once and had no reason to think they couldn’t do it again.
Virginia thought differently, putting together its best all-around effort of the season in a stunning 67-49 upset win. The evening was especially memorable for seniors Chris Alexander and senior forward/guard Maurice Watkins, both of whom were playing in their final home game at University Hall. Alexander sparked Virginia’s overall outstanding defensive effort by helping limit the multi-talented Duncan to 15 points on just six-of-20 shooting from the field. Alexander also scored six points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots.
Watkins–making the first start of his career on senior night–ignited the crowd by hitting a jumper with seven seconds left in the game.
After narrowly leading 25-24 at halftime, Virginia eventually pulled away on the strength of its defense and 72 percent second-half field goal shooting. The Cavaliers outshot the Deacons 61 percent to 29 percent from the field for the game. The trio of Courtney Alexander (19), Deane (18) and Staples (13) led the Cavaliers’ scoring parade.
In some ways, however, the victory was bittersweet. “I think it shows some of the things we could have been doing all season to try to get it all together–the physical, the mental. We should have been doing this all year,” said Watkins afterwards.
Virginia played at Maryland in the final game of the regular season on March 2, looking to even its record at 13-13. Unfortunately for UVa, the Terrapins took an early lead and never gave it up. The Cavaliers trailed by as many as 19 in the first half, but were able to close the gap to 12 at halftime. Maryland held Virginia at bay in the second half to win 83-71. Staples led the Cavalier offense with 20 points, followed by Deane with 17 and 16 from Courtney Alexander.
The Cavaliers finished the regular season with a 12-14 overall record and a 6-10 record in the ACC.
Virginia faced Wake Forest for the third time of the season in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. The second-seeded Demon Deacons, looking to avenge their upset loss to the seventh-seeded Cavaliers just day five days earlier, took a 28-24 halftime lead. The game remained tight for the first 12 minutes of the second half until the Deacons eventually pulled away for a 70-60 win. Chris Alexander was unable to contain Duncan the way he did in Charlottesville. Duncan broke loose for 19 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots. Staples, Deane, and Courtney Alexander led the Virginia attack with 18, 15 and 14 points, respectively.
Following the ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest, Jones was reluctant to say he was glad the season was finally over. “If I had any sense, my answer to that would be ‘yes,'” Jones said, “but I wish we still had some more games to play.” While the fans and certainly the players were disappointed about the Cavaliers’ season, the players were optimistic about the future.
“Next year is a whole new year,” Staples said. “We’ll come back with a positive attitude and see what happens. I would be lying if I said this hasn’t been a tough year, but tough people overcome things like this.”