March 24, 2014

By Jeff White (

RALEIGH, N.C. — In a magical season marked by one milestone after another, the UVa men’s basketball team made more history Sunday night.

Before an amped-up crowd that turned PNC Arena into John Paul Jones Arena South, Virginia destroyed Memphis 78-60 to advance to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995.

“It means the world to have another chance to play with these guys,” senior big man Akil Mitchell said. “We’re on a roll right now, and I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”

UVa (30-6), the No. 1 seed in the East Region, will meet No. 4 seed Michigan State (28-8) at approximately 10 p.m. Friday at Madison Square Garden.

“You get to the Sweet 16, that’s the rarified air of college basketball, and you’re going to have to play,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We know who’s waiting. We know how good they are. It will be us trying to test our game against one of the teams that’s playing their best basketball right now.”

Twice in 2012-13 the Cavaliers were a victory away from playing in New York City at one of the world’s most storied arena, and each time they stumbled. The second loss came in the NIT quarterfinals and ended Virginia’s season.

“After a while it felt like, `Jeez, every time we try to get to the Garden we come up short,’ ” Mitchell said. “So we didn’t even talk about it this time.”

In their interviews Saturday afternoon, Memphis’ players talked at length about how they expected their quickness and athleticism to pose problems for UVa’s defense. Little did they know what awaited them in an arena dominated by Virginia fans.

“It felt like almost a home game for us,” sophomore center Mike Tobey said.

The Cavaliers’ trademark Pack-Line defense has rarely been harder to crack. The eighth-seeded Tigers (23-10), who came in averaging 77.4 points, had only 48 with three minutes left Sunday night. For the game, Memphis shot 40.7 percent from the floor (and 23.1 percent from 3-point range).

“They’ve got to be the best defensive team I’ve ever played against in college,” said Joe Jackson, Memphis’ senior point guard.

With six minutes left in the first half, this was a one-point game. But two free throws by Malcolm Brogdon pushed third-ranked Virginia’s lead to 21-18, and back-to-back 3-pointers by Joe Harris and London Perrantes followed.

“That was definitely a momentum-changer,” Perrantes, a freshman point guard, said after yet another impeccable floor game.

The `Hoos outscored the Tigers 16-2 to close the half and led 35-20 at the break. As UVa’s lead grew, so did Memphis’ frustration.

“You can see it on their faces,” Mitchell said. “You can see it in the way that they guard us, you can see it in the way that they run their actions. They just kind of put their heads down and go, they’re frustrated and they’re out of their rhythm. And that’s what we thrive off of.”

Bennett, the ACC coach of the year, told his players they needed to “build a wall” against the Tigers’ explosive guards.

“Build a wall wherever the ball is,” Bennett said. “Build a wall, because we had to do that, the way they would try to knife you. I thought we struggled early [with Memphis’] speed down the floor. We weren’t sharp early. They got some transition buckets. We were a little out of sync. But once we adjusted and really got back and really set our defense, then we became much more effective.”

Virginia’s offense was as impressive as its defense. Five players scored in double figures for the Cavaliers, who shot 55.6 percent from the floor.

“They’re just as good offensively as they are defensively,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said.

With three minutes remaining, UVa led by 27 points.

“The way we played in the second half, it was just great,” sophomore forward Evan Nolte said. “If you were playing, on the bench or in the stands, it was just beautiful to see.”

Harris, a senior guard, led all scorers with 16 points, and redshirt sophomore big man Anthony Gill contributed 13 off the bench, along with a game-high eight rebounds.

Tobey added 11 points — the final three coming on a crowd-pleasing trey with 3:40 remaining — and six rebounds. Coming off a lackluster performance against No. 16 Coastal Carolina, Tobey wanted to be more aggressive Sunday night, and he asserted himself immediately.

“I think Mike actually set the tone for us offensively and defensively,” Brogdon said. “I think when he can come out and be that physical and that aggressive for us, it really ignites the entire team.”

Brogdon, a redshirt sophomore guard, and sophomore swingman Justin Anderson, the ACC Sixth Man of the Year, scored 10 points apiece. Brogdon and Anderson each had four assists, too, to help the Cavaliers dissect Memphis’ defense.

On offense, Jackson said, “they just wait until you make a mistake, and then they do what they do.”

Perrantes didn’t reach double figures in scoring, but he had eight points, two assists and no turnovers in a team-high 33 minutes.

“To see him in these settings have the composure and the poise he does is, I think, rather remarkable, and I think we got a good one,” Bennett said. “I know we do, [and] everybody else is starting to see that.”

Nolte, one of Virginia’s heroes against Coastal, sparkled again Sunday night. He scored six points in 10 minutes off the bench and gave the Cavaliers’ fans one final thrill.

On a fast break, the 6-8 Nolte took a pass from Anderson and threw down a one-handed dunk with 1:04 remaining. The Virginia faithful roared, and so did Nolte’s teammates on the bench.

“Ev’s got that sneaky bounce,” Tobey said later, smiling.

Nolte’s response in the locker room?

“Fun fact nobody knows: Out of the people in my grade — so me, Tobey, Justin [and Teven Jones] — I was the first person to dunk last year. Tobey gave me the pass.”

Virginia, which swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, was one of six teams from the conference to make the NCAA field, along with Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, NC State and Pittsburgh.

By the time the game tipped off Sunday night, UVa was the only one left. Had the Cavaliers lost, the ACC would have been without a representative in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1979.

“To be the last ones standing is huge,” Brogdon said. “We’re going to try to represent well.”

That’s what the Cavaliers did in their last trip to the Sweet Sixteen. In 1995, Virginia advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight before being ousted.

UVa’s players that season included Jason Williford and Mike Curtis. Nineteen years later, they’re headed back to the Sweet Sixteen with their alma mater — Williford as one of Bennett’s assistants, and Curtis as the team’s strength and conditioning coach.

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