By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On March 9, 2006, the 53rd annual ACC men’s basketball tournament tipped off in Greensboro, N.C.
Since that day, 11 of the league’s 12 schools have played in the ACC semifinals at least once. The exception?
The University of Virginia.
UVa hasn’t advanced to the Saturday of an ACC tournament since March 11, 1995. That’s when No. 4 seed Virginia lost 77-68 to top-seeded Wake Forest and its dazzling guard, Randolph Childress, who was in the midst of a postseason performance for the ages. In the ACC final, Wake beat second-seeded North Carolina in overtime, and Childress finished the tournament with a record 107 points in three games.
“He was going crazy that year,” recalled Jason Williford, a senior forward for the Cavaliers in 1994-95.
Back then, Williford would have questioned the sanity of anyone who suggested that UVa would enter the 2012 ACC tourney hoping to reach the semifinals for the first time in 17 years.
“No way,” Williford, now of UVa coach Tony Bennett’s assistants, said Monday. “I still don’t believe it.”
It’s true. But on Friday in Atlanta, site of the 59th ACC tournament, the Wahoos will get another opportunity to end nearly two decades of frustration.
“It’s Act 3 of the season,” Bennett said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. Act 1, he said, was the non-conference portion of UVa’s schedule; Act 2, league play.
Virginia, which went 9-7 in ACC games, won a tiebreaker with Miami and NC State for the tourney’s No. 4 seed, which carries with it a first-round bye.
For a team “with a small rotation, an extra day can make a difference,” Bennett said. “Very thankful to be in this spot.”
At approximately 2:30 p.m. Friday, in the second ACC quarterfinal, UVa (22-8) will meet No. 5 seed NC State or No. 12 seed Boston College at Philips Arena.
The Wolfpack (20-11) takes on the Eagles (9-21) in a first-round game Thursday afternoon. State swept Boston College during the regular season, winning 76-62 in Raleigh on Jan. 19 and 56-51 in Chestnut Hill, Mass., on Feb. 1.
UVa played each team once during the regular season. On Jan. 26 at John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia pulled away for a 66-49 win over BC. Two nights later, at the RBC Center, the ‘Hoos held on for a 61-60 victory over the Wolfpack.
Against BC, seven players scored at least 6 points for Virginia, led by 6-8 forward Mike Scott (18). The game in Raleigh offered more drama. The ‘Hoos needed a defensive stop on the game’s final possession to win a game in which the Pack outrebounded them 42-25. Richard Howell, a 6-8, 250-pound junior, had 18 boards to lead State, which turned its 18 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points.
“They were men amongst boys to start the game,” Bennett said Monday. “I remember that, just how they owned the glass.”
Virginia didn’t have Assane Sene against Boston College or NC State. The 7-foot center, who had surgery on his right ankle Jan. 20, won’t be available in Atlanta, either. Bennett announced Monday that Sene, who started UVa’s first 17 games, won’t play again this season, even if he’s healthy enough to do so, because of a violation of team rules.
UVa has proven it can beat NC State and BC without Sene. But the Cavaliers had freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon in those games, and a foot injury may keep him out of the ACC tournament. Brogdon, who’s from the Atlanta area, totaled 13 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals off the bench in the wins over NCSU and BC.
Brogdon sat out UVa’s final two regular-season games. If he can’t play Friday, Virginia will have seven healthy scholarship players: freshmen Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson, sophomores Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, junior Jontel Evans, and fifth-year seniors Sammy Zeglinski and Scott.
Scott, who leads UVa in scoring and rebounding, was named to the All-ACC first team Monday afternoon. With 184 votes from members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association, Scott was second only to North Carolina senior Tyler Zeller (186).
In the regular-season finale, Scott scored a career-high 35 points and pulled down 11 rebounds to help UVa beat Maryland in overtime Sunday at Comcast Center. The 35 points are the most by an ACC player this season.
“On the offensive end, he was terrific and made play after play,” Bennett said. “He’s had one of those seasons that as a senior you certainly hope to have heading into postseason play.”
Evans had four steals against Maryland, his high in an ACC game, and was named to the ACC’s All-Defensive team Monday. A 5-11 point guard from Hampton, Evans also had a game-high 6 assists in College Park and scored 4 of his 6 points in OT.
UVa arrived in College Park on a two-game slide, having dropped close games to nationally ranked foes UNC and Florida State at JPJ. For a team hoping to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years, a loss to the Terrapins might have been costly.
Virginia’s players were aware of the implications of the Maryland game, Evans said, but “Coach just told us, ‘Don’t worry about that. Just go out there and have fun and play and just release your mind.’ ”
Most, if not all, bracketologists, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, project UVa as part of the NCAA tournament field.
“I’m hopeful,” Bennett said, “but never assume anything for sure.”
And so the Cavaliers will head to Atlanta looking to enhance their postseason résumé. Not only would a win Friday send the ‘Hoos to the ACC semifinals for the first time since 1995, it would strengthen their case for an at-large invitation to the NCAAs.
“We just want to keep playing good ball,” Bennett said.