March 15, 2014

By Jeff White (

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Before he traveled to this city for the ACC men’s basketball tournament, Tony Bennett received a text from a friend in Seattle.

Wally Walker congratulated Bennett, who’s in his fifth season at the University of Virginia, on being named ACC coach of the year. The former UVa great also “mentioned that on behalf of the `76 team, we would be delighted to have ACC tournament company!” Walker recalled in an email Saturday evening.

Walker, of course, led the sixth-seeded Cavaliers to the ACC title in 1976 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md.

In basketball, the ACC tournament winner is considered the official conference champion, and ’76 marked the first time Virginia was crowned. It remains the only time, but the Wahoos will try again to change that Sunday.

If Walker can’t make it to Greensboro for the ACC championship game, he said, he’ll follow his alma mater on TV, as he did Saturday.

“So much to like and admire about this year’s team,” Walker said. “Particularly love its grit.”

For the first time since 1994, when they lost to North Carolina in the championship game, the `Hoos have put themselves in position to win a second ACC title.

“Obviously, what [the ’76 team] did was special,” Bennett said, “because of how special the ACC tournament is. But it would be great to [hang] another banner or have that to share with them.”

Top-seeded Virginia held off fifth-seeded Pittsburgh 51-48 in a fiercely contested semifinal Saturday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum, where the capacity crowd included Bennett’s parents. His mother, Anne, also attended the Cavaliers’ quarterfinal Friday. Dick Bennett, who stayed in Charlottesville on Friday, surprised his son by driving to Greensboro early Saturday morning and showing up at the team hotel.

Much like the regular-season meeting between these teams, which the Cavaliers won on a last-second 3-pointer by redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, the rematch turned out to be what, Tony Bennett said, his father termed a “blue-collar knuckle-buster.”

Redshirt sophomore big man Anthony Gill hit both ends of a one-and-one with 8.5 seconds left to push Virginia’s lead to 51-48. Sophomore swingman Justin Anderson then blocked a 3-point attempt by Pitt guard James Robinson to effectively seal the victory for UVa in its first ACC semifinal since 1995. Anderson is an outstanding leaper who, at 6-6, stands three inches taller than Robinson.

“You saw Justin unfold on that shot,” Bennett said, “and that was obviously a great play.”

Anderson said: “Robinson got some separation on me, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t get any cheap fouls or anything off the screens. Once I saw that he hesitated a little bit to shoot the first time, he pump-faked a little bit, and then I just jumped and contested it and I felt four fingers on it, and that was the best feeling ever.”

And now comes a showdown against the only one of UVa’s ACC counterparts that can say it did not to lose to Bennett’s team during the regular season: Duke.

The third-seeded Blue Devils, seeking their 20th ACC title, advanced to the championship game with a 75-67 victory over No. 7 seed NC State in the second semifinal Saturday.

UVa (27-6) and Duke (26-7) will meet Sunday at 1 p.m. at the 23,500-seat Greensboro Coliseum.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Duke star Rodney Hood said Saturday evening.

That was an apt description of UVa’s semifinal with Pitt. The `Hoos went ahead 26-24 on a trey by senior guard Joe Harris (team-high 12 points) with 1:40 left in the first half. The Panthers (25-9) never regained the lead, but they never allowed Virginia to get comfortable, either.

For a stretch of the second half, it appeared the Cavaliers might pull away. After the 6-8 Gill hit a difficult shot from the right baseline to make it 45-37 with 9:28 left, however, Virginia went nearly six minutes without scoring.

“I think we got fatigued and we got stagnant,” Bennett said. “There were some tired guys out there, and I didn’t think we ran our offense as hard, or when we had a set, we kind of got thwarted by Pitt’s D. They got physical. It was obvious they weren’t going to give you anything easy, and everybody knew it was kind of hanging on a possession.”

The Panthers trimmed their deficit to three before the Cavaliers finally scored again, on a pass from freshman point guard London Perrantes to Harris for a layup. That made it 47-42 at the 3:30 mark.

“It definitely gave us relief,” said Perrantes, who finished with a game-high five assists. “We needed that bucket, and for us to come through with that, especially after that drought, it definitely helped us.”

Pitt fought back again, pulling first to 47-44 and then, after Brogdon hit a left-handed layup, to 49-46. UVa got the ball back with 50.7 seconds left, but the possession went awry.

With the shot clock running down, Brogdon was stripped by Robinson, who picked up the loose ball and drove for a layup that pulled the Panthers to 49-48 with 10 seconds left.

UVa’s Akil Mitchell, a 6-8 senior, contested Robinson’s shot, and the Panthers’ coaches and fans screamed for a foul call. None came. After a Pitt timeout, Perrantes inbounded the ball to Brogdon, who was fouled with 9.2 seconds left. That was only the Panthers’ sixth foul of the half, though, and UVa had to inbound the ball again.

This time Pitt blanketed Brogdon, Virginia’s best free-throw shooter, and Perrantes’ second option, Harris, was well-covered, too. So Perrantes passed to Gill, whom the Panthers fouled immediately.

“I could have called a timeout, but A.G. was open, and I have faith in him,” Perrantes said. “He can knock down the free throws.”

Gill, who sat out last season after transferring to Virginia from South Carolina, came into the tournament shooting only 61.5 percent from the line. But he went 4 for 4 in UVa’s win over Florida State on Friday, and he delivered again Saturday, making 4 of 5 free throws. His miss came with five-tenths of a second left.

At the recommendation of Bennett, who in his 40s remains an exceptional shooter, Gill recently changed his routine on free throws.

“I’m not spending that much time on the line,” Gill said. “I do three dribbles and go right into my shot. Whereas before I would do three dribbles, pause and then shoot it.”

Gill, who scored 16 points in the quarterfinal, finished with 10 on Saturday. The first big man off the bench for the nation’s sixth-ranked team, he’s an offensive force in the low post, and he’s no longer a liability at the other end.

“He’s played really well,” Brogdon said. “He’s been a significant piece to why we’ve been winning. Just really aggressive, attacking the glass and playing good defense. His defense has come a really long way from the beginning of the season.”

Even after Gill made the pivotal free throws, Pitt had an opportunity to send the game into overtime. The Panthers had the misfortune, though, of facing one of the nation’s premier defensive teams.

“We pride ourselves in getting stops and being a defensive minded team,” Harris said. “When the last possession comes down to getting a stop, I would say that man for man on our team, we would feel confident we would be able to do that.”

And so the Cavaliers did, reaching yet another milestone in what has become one of the greatest seasons in school history. Since losing by 35 points at Tennessee on Dec. 30, Virginia has been beaten only twice: the first time by four at Duke on Jan. 13, the second time in overtime at Maryland in the March 9 regular-season finale.

At Cameron Indoor Stadium, the `Hoos trailed by 11 points with 3:30 remaining. But they staged a remarkable comeback. Virginia took a 65-64 lead on two free throws by Brogdon with 36 seconds to play, only to see Duke answer with an improbable 3-pointer by guard Rasheed Sulaimon. The Blue Devils held for a 69-65 win.

Virginia held Duke’s All-ACC forward, freshman Jabari Parker, to eight points in that game.

“Tony’s done a sensational job,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum. “What he’s done is, [he’s] built a program. It’s not just a Virginia team, it’s a Virginia program. It’s based on solid play and solid character. Those kids on that team have great character, and it’s obvious that they don’t care who scores, as long as Virginia scores.”

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