By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CLEMSON, S.C. — For a moment, UVa men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett admitted later, he was tempted to salute his team with a triumphant shout in the visiting locker room at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Bennett chose to refrain. He preaches the importance of staying even-keeled, and Bennett heeded his own counsel Saturday afternoon. Even so, he didn’t hesitate to congratulate his players on a hard-earned victory, Virginia’s first in this arena since Jan. 28, 2007.
“It was a battle,” Bennett told reporters after UVa, ranked No. 16 in the USA Today coaches poll, clawed its way to a 63-58 win over Clemson.
The Wahoos (21-5, 12-1) made 8 of their final 11 shots from the floor to secure their ninth consecutive ACC victory.
“Credit Virginia for the way they played late in the game,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “Their execution offensively was really good. They finished the game like a team that is 12-1 with 21 wins and played on the road with very good poise.”
The Cavaliers’ 12-1 conference record is their best since 1981-82, when they also won 12 of their first 13 ACC games.
Nothing came easily Saturday for the `Hoos, even though they outrebounded Clemson 33-20. Virginia led by three at the break, thanks to a last-second tip-in by sophomore center Mike Tobey, but the Tigers (15-9, 6-6) scored the first five points of the second half.
The Cavaliers missed 14 of their first 15 field-goal attempts in the second half and did not regain the lead until the 6:10 mark, when redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon banked in a leaner to make it 45-43.
From there, though, UVa slowly took control. A catch-and-shoot 3-pointer by senior guard Joe Harris — his fourth trey of the game — pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 52-48. Clemson turned to its best player, junior swingman K.J. McDaniels, whose two free throws made it 52-50, but UVa’s Anthony Gill responded with a three-point play that silenced the home fans.
A 6-8 redshirt sophomore, Gill faked a handoff to freshman point guard London Perrantes, fooling Clemson defenders. Gill had a clear path to the basket and made a layup on which he was fouled.
“It’s just an option where I read the defender and react to him,” Gill said. “I’ve been working on it, and they jumped out, so I just kept it. I knew we needed something, and right then that seemed like the best option, because they were overplaying on our guards. I knew that I could get to the rim, and that’s what I did.”
In the final 1:21, Brogdon took over, as he has so often this season, making all six of his free throws to help keep the Tigers at bay.
“I just try to block out all the noise and tell myself, `I do this every day, and I don’t miss free throws,’ ” Brogdon said. “That’s what I tell myself every time I go to the line.
After McDaniels bombed in an NBA-length 3-pointer to pull Clemson to 59-58, Brogdon calmly sank two foul shots with 16.7 seconds left.
With UVa up three in the final seconds, Bennett said, he considered having his team foul. But he decided to trust his defense, and his faith was rewarded.
An ill-advised 3-point attempt by reserve guard Jordan Roper, well-covered by Perrantes, ended up in the hands of Brogdon, who was fouled after coming down with his eighth rebound. Brogdon closed out the scoring with 8.9 seconds left, dropping in two more free throws.
For the game, he made 7 of 8 shots from the line.
“Why did he miss that one? That’s what I want to know,” Bennett said, smiling. “No, he’s very poised. He has a quietness in his mind when he steps up there, and those were significant, because they hit a big, big 3 to bring it within reach.”
Harris led the Cavaliers with 16 points, Tobey and Brogdon added 14 apiece, and Gill chipped in 12 off the bench. An illness kept Clemson’s starting center, 6-10, 250-pound Landry Nnoko, from playing Saturday, and Tobey (7 for 9) and Gill (4 for 4) capitalized on his absence.
“You’re talking about 11 for 13,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Before a crowd of 8,573 at 10,000-seat Littlejohn, Clemson stunned the Cavaliers early. UVa leads the nation in scoring defense, but the Tigers hit their first six shots from the floor.
“I thought they really came out ready,” Bennett said. “Coach Brownell did a good job. They exploited us. It wasn’t that we weren’t ready, but we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be.”
For the half, Clemson shot 50 percent from the floor. By game’s end, however, the Tigers’ percentage had dipped to 42.9.
“They got easy stuff against us early,” Bennett said, “but then I thought the game settled into that hard-fought battle that we all expected.”
The Cavaliers “knew it would be a tough game,” Bennett said. “You knew you’d have to be tough and compete like heck to be in this, and that was the mindset heading in, and after those first six possessions I thought we did a decent job of that.”
Harris said: “It was a tough game, but an enjoyable win. It’s always fun when you can play against somebody that kind of plays the same way you do, that really takes a lot of pride in their defense. It was just a tough, hard-nosed game.”
In UVa’s record book, Harris (241) moved past Harold Deane Jr. (237) into second place in career 3-pointers, and he passed Travis Watson (1,546) to take over 14th place in career points. Harris has scored 1,562 in his four seasons.
This wasn’t Harris’ best shooting performance — he made 6 of a season-high 15 attempts from the floor and was 0 for 2 from the line — but he delivered when his team needed him most.
Harris had ample motivation down the stretch. With about 14 minutes left, he got caught in the air on a breakaway and couldn’t decide whether to dunk the ball or lay it in. His slam attempt missed.
“Oh, my gosh,” Harris said when asked about the play. “I should have just gone with two hands. I couldn’t get a grip on the ball, and I just lost it. And I was so mad at myself, especially in this type of game. I knew it was going to come down to a possession game, and we needed two points, and I should have just laid it in.”
He was determined, Harris said, to “redeem myself after that. That was embarrassing.”
Tobey said: “He was definitely frustrated. Thank God we won, or otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make fun of him as much.”
For Tobey, his scoring output was his highest since Jan. 28, when he had 14 against Notre Dame. He had 10 in the first half against Clemson, the final twocoming when he reached out with his left hand to tip in a missed 3-pointer by Harris.
“I don’t even know how it went in,” Tobey said, smiling. “I kind of just tried to smack it. It was a weird angle. I got lucky.”
The ACC road victory was Virginia’s sixth of the season. Several of its predecessors were one-sided affairs, but the victory at Littlejohn more closely resembled UVa’s 48-45 win at Pittsburgh on Feb. 2.
“I think every time you taste success or do something well, that’s a good deposit that you need,” Bennett said, “and I think you can draw on that and not get rattled or flustered.”
Harris said: “It reminded me a lot of that Pitt game. We had the confidence late in this game where we’d already been in this situation. We played Pitt down to the wire in a hectic environment and executed down the stretch.”
The victory assured UVa of yet another milestone in what’s becoming a remarkable season. Virginia is only the second school in the conference’s history to improve its ACC record in five consecutive seasons.
In 2008-09, the Cavaliers’ final year under Dave Leitao, they finished 4-12 in ACC play. They improved to 5-11 in 2009-10 (Bennett’s first season in Charlottesville), to 7-9 in 2010-11, to 9-7 in 2011-12, and then to 11-7 in 2012-13.
ROAD TRIP: Virginia has five regular-season games left. The first comes Tuesday night in Blacksburg, where UVa meets Virginia Tech (9-15, 2-10) at 9 o’clock. The ACC Network will televise the game.
The Hokies knocked off Miami 52-45 at Cassell Coliseum on Saturday night. Both of Tech’s ACC wins have come against the Hurricanes.
On Jan. 25 UVa hammered Tech 65-45 at John Paul Jones Arena. The `Hoos have won four straight over the Hokies and lead the series 85-53.