March 2, 2014

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By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Long after the game ended Saturday evening, the court at John Paul Jones Arena remained covered with joyous fans. They had no desire to leave the scene of one of the greatest victories in UVa men’s basketball history, and the throng soon had company on the floor.

From their locker room, Virginia players and coaches emerged for an unforgettable curtain call. One by one by players climbed a ladder and, with scissors, snipped a strand off the net, to roars of delight from the thousands of fans who remained at JPJ to celebrate No. 12 UVa’s 75-56 win over No. 4 Syracuse.

“It’s crazy,” sophomore center Mike Tobey said. “It’s something that you dream about as a little kid, and it’s a dream come true.”

In its home finale, UVa (25-5, 16-1) clinched the outright ACC regular-season title for the first time since 1981, and only second time ever. The victory, the Wahoos’ 13th straight, extended their ACC home winning straight to 18 games.

“It was a beautiful thing out there,” sophomore swingman Justin Anderson said.

In the second half, buoyed by the support of a deliriously happy sellout crowd, Virginia shot 57.7 percent from the floor — 63.6 percent from 3-point range — against Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense.

“It’s unbelievable,” senior guard Joe Harris said. “I couldn’t even describe this feeling right now.”

The honor of cutting the final strand went, naturally, to head coach Tony Bennett, the man who has led the `Hoos back to the top of the ACC.

“When you’re part of turning something around,” Bennett said, “it’s really special.”

Bennett came to UVa from Washington State in the spring of 2009, replacing Dave Leitao, whose final team had finished 10-18.

In Bennett’s first season, the `Hoos won 15 games. They won 16 in 2010-11 and 22 in 2011-12, when they advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.

In 2012-13, the Cavaliers won 23 games and reached the NIT quarterfinals. And now, in their fifth year under Bennett, they’ll head into the ACC tournament seeded No. 1, no matter what happens next Sunday in the regular-season finale at Maryland, and they’re locks for the NCAA tourney.

“They have been the best team in the league so far this year,” said Jim Boeheim, Syracuse’s Hall of Fame coach. “They proved that today.”

With 11 minutes left Saturday, the game was tied 42-42, but from there the `Hoos dominated the Orange (26-3, 13-3).

“This is the first game all year that we have been out of the game in the last five minutes of the game,” Boeheim said.

If there were any doubt that this was a magical night at JPJ, it vanished when Thomas Rogers, the last of UVa’s three seniors to enter the game, buried a 3-pointer from the right wing with 25 seconds remaining.

The points were the first in an ACC game for Rogers, a former walk-on whom Bennett put on a scholarship before the school year.

“I’ve never jumped so high in my life off the bench,” said senior big man Akil Mitchell, Rogers’ roommate for the past three years. “I was so happy. Everything that kid’s been through, he deserved it. I love him.”

Harris said: “I’m really happy for Tom. Akil, Tom and I are all very close. We stuck this thing out. We’ve been here four years together, and to see him end his last game at JPJ like that was very cool.”

In a Senior Day ceremony before the game, Harris, Mitchell and Rogers were honored, along with student-managers Mikey Carpenter, Luke Ford and Chelsea Mangino.

Harris and Mitchell are the only remaining members of the six-player recruiting class that enrolled at Virginia in June 2010.

“One of the main reasons why I came, and I know Akil came here,” Harris said, “is that we wanted to be the foundation for Coach Bennett’s program, turning this thing around and getting it back to what it used to be. For us to go out this way, with the ACC [regular-season title], is unreal. I can’t even describe the feeling.

“But at the same time, we still have a lot of basketball left, which is exciting. I cannot wait for the postseason. I can’t wait for Maryland on Sunday. We’re going to have a good week of preparation, and we’re going to keep this thing rolling.”

Bennett knows the emotions of Senior Day can be overwhelming, and he talked with Harris and Mitchell after practice Friday evening at JPJ.

“I said, `Listen, don’t get goofy on me. Your parents can enjoy it. You’re going to get an unbelievable ovation when they announce your name, but we got a task at hand. Stay focused,’ ” Bennett recalled.

“The way the crowd was responding to them, it can take you down a road that I don’t know you want to go down in this important of a game. So I thought they did a great job of being locked-in, and that’s hard to do.”

The 6-8 Mitchell was on from the opening tip. By halftime, he had eight points and seven rebounds, and he finished with 12 and nine.

The 6-6 Harris didn’t have as much success early. He had only one point in the first half and, with five minutes remaining, was 0 for 7 from the floor. But his eighth attempt, a 3-point from the left wing, found its mark. The decibel levels inside JPJ rose to deafening levels, and not for the first time Saturday.

“Man, the crowd was electric tonight,” said Anderson, who hit three treys and finished with 11 points.

Mitchell said: “I thought it would be loud, but my ears were popping. It was insane in there.”

The crowd of 14,593 included the man for whom the arena is named, John Paul “Jack” Jones, and his son, Paul Tudor Jones, whose generosity helped UVa build the arena. The fans created an atmosphere that compared favorably with anything in college basketball.

Members of the Hoo Crew, UVa’s student section, began camping outside JPJ on Friday afternoon, and from the moment they were let inside at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, they were in full voice. They stayed that way throughout the game, and when the final horn sounded, students rushed the court.

“I knew it was going to be electric,” Bennett said, “but that gives you something, that crowd, defensively. It was special how intense it was in there and the passion you got from it.”

Bennett smiled. “The last time I heard it that loud, I was at the Taylor Swift concert [in September]. There’s 14,000 teenage girls screaming, and I remember sitting there like, `I wonder if we can get it like this for a game?’ And I’m telling you something: It either rivaled it or surpassed it. Sorry Taylor, but it was that good.”

Brogdon, playing with a jammed thumb on his shooting hand, bolstered his All-ACC candidacy with another splendid performance. He went 8 for 8 from the line and scored a career-high 19 points. Seventeen came in the second half.

“I’ve watched Syracuse for years,” Brogdon said. “I’ve watched that zone for years. I’ve watched them all this season. They’re super effective in getting people sped up and getting them to take bad shots. Today I took maybe a few bad shots in the first half, quick shots, and then in the second half I slowed down and I tried to figure out where my spots were that I could score and how the defense was playing me.”

Three other Cavaliers scored in double figures, too: Mitchell, Anderson and Tobey (11 points), who hit 5 of 9 shots from the floor and pulled down eight rebounds, five at the offensive rebound.

“We needed it,” Bennett said. “That’s been our thing this year, different guys at different times, and certainly Mike gave us a great lift today.”

So did freshman point guard London Perrantes, whom Boeheim called “a tremendous player.” Perrantes hit two momentum-changing 3-pointers after intermission, the first of which gave Virginia its first second-half lead.

In his previous game, a 65-40 romp over ACC rival Miami, Perrantes had scored a career-high 15 points. Against Syracuse, though, he didn’t take a shot in the first half.

“I feel like I got into the lane and I was looking to pass instead of shooting the ball,” Perrantes said. “I got out of that in the second half. I was looking more to shoot the ball and be more aggressive.”

Led by Anderson (3 for 4), UVa finished 8 for 16 from beyond the arc. Not until the final minute of the first half, though, did the Cavaliers make a 3-pointer, a shot from the left wing by Anderson that cut Syracuse’s lead to 28-27.

“We needed that,” Bennett said. “It’s almost impossible to beat them without knocking down some 3s.”

The `Hoos torched the `Cuse in the second half. Equally important, Bennett said, was his team’s defensive effort. Virginia plays a rugged man-to-man defense, called the Pack Line, that was designed by Bennett’s father, Dick, during his legendary coaching career. It paid dividends again Saturday.

There were five lead changes in the second half. With the outcome still undecided, Bennett said, his message to his players “was, `Fellas, we hang our hat on our defense. Either we’re going to get stops and limit `em to one chance and do this, or it’s not going to happen.’ ”

What happened after the game surprised the players.

“We weren’t really expecting to cut down the nets,” Harris said. “They kind of just shuffled us back out there, which was pretty cool.”

Harris smiled. “Some of the guys were talking about it before the game, and I said, `Nah, no way we’re cutting down the nets.’ Because knowing Coach Bennett, he’s probably going to want us to just start getting ready for Maryland as soon as possible.”

In the locker room, Bennett’s right-hand man, Ronnie Wideman, had surprised his boss. Wideman, UVa’s assistant athletics director for men’s basketball, told Bennett the team needed to return to the court to celebrate the championship by cutting down the nets.

“I was like, `I don’t know if we should do that,’ ” Bennett said. “But then Ronnie was like, `Look, it’s been a while since we won it outright, and it’s great for the guys to do that.’ ”

More than anything else, Bennett said, the team wanted to salute its fans for their support. UVa has won 35 of its past 39 games at JPJ.

“It’s a thank-you for two years,” Bennett said. “To have this kind of atmosphere, and then to see it grow, it truly is a home-court advantage.”

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