March 16, 2014

By Jeff White (

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Great day to be a `Hoo!

Members of the UVa men’s basketball team hear that phrase regularly from assistant coach Jason Williford, a proud alumnus who never tires of repeating it.

Virginia fans everywhere voiced variations of Williford’s trademark line Sunday, a day that grew more memorable for Tony Bennett’s team by the hour.

First, at the Greensboro Coliseum, Virginia defeated Duke 72-63 to win the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976 and only the second time in program history. When the game ended, multi-colored confetti dropped from the ceiling, covering everyone on or near the court, and years of pent-up frustration were released in a frenzied celebration.

“That’s a long time, 38 years,” sophomore swingman Justin Anderson said.

As UVa’s band played “We Are The Champions,” the newly crowned champions basked in the applause of the fans who’d turned the 23,500-seat Greensboro Coliseum into a larger version of John Paul Jones Arena. Among those in attendance were the University’s president, Teresa Sullivan; Bennett’s parents, Dick and Anne; and Terry Holland, coach of the UVa team that won the ACC title in 1976.

“It felt amazing,” senior big man Akil Mitchell said. “That’s what you dream of.”

Bennett said he savored “that moment when you’re on the floor [and] you see your wife, you see your parents, you see the joy in these guys’ eyes and hearts. That’s gratifying as anything. I soaked that up without a doubt. I gave thanks certainly for all that’s happened, as I said, through the tough times, through the good times.”

The fun was only beginning for the Wahoos. About three hours later, they were awarded one of the NCAA tournament’s four No. 1 seeds. The top seed in the East Region, Virginia (28-6) will face No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina (21-12) in a second-round game Friday around 9:25 p.m. at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

The `Hoos watched the NCAA selection show in Danville, Va., of all places. With bad weather predicted Sunday night in Charlottesville, UVa’s team bus left the arena around 4:45 p.m. An hour up the road, the Cavaliers stopped in Danville at Kickback Jack’s, a sports bar where a private room, with seven large-screen TVs, had been reserved for the traveling party.

Dozens of orange-and-blue-clad supporters beat the team to the restaurant, and they cheered as the players and coaches walked in.

“It was great just to see UVa fans traveling and supporting us like that,” redshirt sophomore big man Anthony Gill said.

On the road to Danville, the team had watched various talking heads on TV critique the Cavaliers. Former Virginia coach Pete Gillen said the `Hoos deserved a No. 1 seed. But former Villanova coach Steve Lappas made it sound as if Virginia would be fortunate to get a No. 2 seed, and bracketologist Jerry Palm declared flatly that UVa would not be a No. 1.

“They were hating on us,” Gill said later, laughing.

About 30 minutes into the selection show, the final authority — the NCAA — delivered its verdict. The teams in the East Region were revealed, and Virginia received the fourth No. 1 seed in program history.

Players and managers and coaches and their families leaped to their feet. Bennett wasn’t as demonstrative as his assistants, but he clapped his hands and smiled and then hugged his wife, Laurel.

His players showed less restraint. They huddled together at one end of the room, whooping and raising a familiar chant: “‘Hoos! `Hoos! `Hoos!”

“Everyone just went crazy,” Gill said.

This is Bennett’s fifth season at UVa. His first team won 15 games, his second 16, his third 22 (with a trip to the NCAAs) and his fourth 23, including two in the National Invitational Tournament.

His fifth team finished 16-2 in conference play to run away with the regular-season title, and Bennett was named ACC coach of the year. Three wins in the ACC tournament followed — over No. 9 seed Florida State, No. 5 seed Pittsburgh and, finally, No. 3 seed Duke.

“I think they’re a helluva basketball team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Not since 1995 had the Cavaliers advanced to the ACC semifinals. Not since `94, when Williford was a starting forward, had they played in the championship game. Not since ’76, when as a sixth seed the Wally Walker-led `Hoos prevailed in Landover, Md., had they won it all.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Mitchell said Sunday, “but we’ve solidified ourselves in the history of UVa.”

And that, Bennett told his players in Danville, is “pretty cool. Pretty cool to be in this spot and enjoy what we have today. That was fun, but we still got a lot to do.”

In the regular season, Duke edged UVa 69-65 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Had the Blue Devils won the rematch, too, Virginia might well have dropped to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. But the Cavaliers pounced early and never looked rattled, even when the Devils’ wondrous freshman, 6-8 forward Jabari Parker, appeared on the verge of taking the game over.

“We didn’t put too much hype on this game,” UVa freshman point guard London Perrantes said. “We just went out and played our game, regardless of who we were playing or what we were playing for. I feel like we’re starting to play our best ball right now.”

Four Cavaliers received all-tournament honors. Gill and Mitchell, former teammates at Charlotte Christian School, were named to the second team. The first team included redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon and senior guard Joe Harris, who was named the tournament MVP.

Of the six players who made up Bennett’s first recruiting class at UVa, Mitchell and Harris are the only ones remaining in the program.

“This is what we wanted to do when we first came here, and this is a special feeling,” said Harris, who’s from Chelan, Wash.

The 6-6 Harris scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half Sunday. Three came on a deep shot from the left wing that put Virginia ahead 64-57 with 1:58.

The 6-8 Mitchell grabbed 15 rebounds — no other player on either team had more than eight — and also had seven points, two blocked shots and one steal. The 6-5 Brogdon scored a career-high 23 points.

“He’s steady, kind of unflappable, and so strong,” Krzyzewski said of Brogdon. “Strong mentally and, obviously, strong physically. He and Harris, they’re two men … Those two and Mitchell give you three of the better players in the country on one team.”

Other standouts for UVa included 6-11 sophomore Mike Tobey, who scored eight points on 4-for-5 shooting, and the 6-8 Gill, who contributed 12 points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.

“Going into the game, Coach said we were going to have an advantage inside,” Tobey said, “so I think me and A.G. and Akil did a really good job of crashing the offensive glass and going to work down there.”

Little came easily for Gill on Sunday. He missed 5 of 6 shots from the floor and 7 of 17 from the line. But he attacked the basket relentlessly and was the main reason Duke was in foul trouble for much of the game.

“It was definitely a different kind of game for me,” Gill said, “because I’m not used to missing that many shots. But I didn’t lose any confidence. I just kept shooting it, and Coach has confidence in me, so I was OK.”

Parker, a first-team All-ACC selection, led the Blue Devils with 23 points. If not for Mitchell’s defensive prowess, Parker might have scored at least 10 more.

“He’s special, strong, athletic, quick,” Mitchell said.

Of course, those adjectives can also be used to describe Mitchell as a defender.

“He is just relentless, and he can slide his feet like a guard,” Tobey said. “And he’s 6-8 and can run. He’s a ridiculous athlete and he just does an amazing job.”

Parker would not disagree with that assessment of Mitchell. “He’s a good defensive player,” Parker said, “and he should be one of the greatest defensive players in Virginia history.”

Duke opened the scoring Sunday with a basket by big man Amile Jefferson, but Virginia answered with nine straight points: four by Tobey and five by Brogdon. The Blue Devils pulled even at 19-19 on a 3-pointer by Parker, but the `Hoos responded with six straight points.

“You have to answer in a game like this,” Bennett said, and his team did so every time Duke made a run.

With 15:18 remaining, Parker put the Devils ahead for the first time since the game’s opening minute, but Brogdon responded with a jumper. After Parker scored with 8:36 left to give Duke a 47-46 lead, Gill made a free throw to tie the game. The Blue Devils never led again.

“I want to congratulate Virginia,” Krzyzewski said. “It was an amazingly physical game. Both teams wanted it so hard, so much. They were poised. They finished better than we did.”

That they had such a boisterous crowd urging them on helped the Cavaliers immensely. Virginia fans were in full voice from well before the opening tipoff until long afterward.

“I thought because [Greensboro is] so close to Duke, we were going to be Blue Deviled out,” Anderson said, “and to hear our fans outnumber them in our chants, it was great.”

Harris said: “That was unbelievable, to have the support that we had. We were kind of joking around when we came in, `Where are the Duke fans?’ All we could see was orange when we drove over here. It’s special to share it with the fans. They deserve it. The city of Charlottesville deserves an ACC tournament title. They’ve been extremely loyal and very supportive ever since I’ve gotten to the school here.”

Bennett agreed, saluting what he called Virginia’s “faithful fans.”

“I think they appreciate how these guys have gone about doing it, the way they play, the kind of character they [show] off the court, and they’ve watched these two grow up,” Bennett said, motioning to Harris and Mitchell.

More fans were waiting outside in the snow Sunday night when the team bus arrived back at JPJ, and the players thanked them for their support.

As for the scene at the Greensboro Coliseum earlier in the day, Bennett said, “I don’t know if it’s always this charged in here or this electric with the crowd noise and the atmosphere, but it sure felt special, and that’s a big shout out to the Cavalier fans.”

When Bennett heard Virginia fans chanting Sunday, “I said, `Are we in John Paul Jones Arena or in Greensboro?’ It felt like a home crowd at times. Duke got it going, but that was a special crowd.”

A special crowd on a special day. A great day to be a `Hoo, you might say.

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