By Jeff White (email@example.com)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — On the court, they showed little emotion after the final horn sounded Monday night, lining up almost immediately to shake hands with Syracuse’s players and coaches.
Once they reached the visiting locker room at the Carrier Dome, though, UVa’s players let their emotions show, breaking out a familiar chant — “Hoos! Hoos! Hoos! Hoos!” — in honor of their latest feat.
“It’s just amazing to be able to celebrate with such brothers like that,” power forward Anthony Gill said later. “We’re blessed to be in this position, and it’s an honor to be up here at the top of the ACC.”
Coming into 2014-15, only three schools had won outright ACC regular-season titles in men’s basketball in back-to-back seasons: Duke, North Carolina and NC State.
Second-ranked Virginia joined the list Monday night with a 59-47 comeback victory over Syracuse. Win or lose Saturday night at No. 16 Louisville, UVa (28-1, 16-1) will finish ahead of No. 3 Duke (26-3, 13-3) in the ACC standings.
“I’m so thankful, because these young men have stayed true to their identity as a team,” said Tony Bennett, who’s in his sixth season as the Cavaliers’ head coach. “You have to trust what we’re doing, and they’ve done that. They found ways, and that’s remarkable to me, in a very good conference with great depth. And to get it this year on the road [is even more impressive].”
UVa guard Malcolm Brogdon said: “I think it’s more of an accomplishment this year. We lost players [to injuries]. The ACC has gotten stronger. People have doubted us even more this year. I think it speaks to our coach, I think it speaks to the staff and us as a group. We’re resilient and we’re mature.”
In its home finale last year, Virginia hammered Syracuse 75-56 before a delirious sellout crowd at John Paul Jones Arena to clinch the ACC regular-season title outright for the first time since 1981.
The teams didn’t meet again until Monday, when the Orange’s home finale drew 25,338 fans to the Carrier Dome – the largest crowd ever to witness a Virginia regular-season game.
With an ESPN audience watching too, the Wahoos could not have looked more inept in the early going. More than nine minutes passed before the `Hoos scored, on a basket by Gill, and they turned the ball over 10 times in the first 11 minutes against Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone.
“We looked a little tentative, or scared,” Bennett said.
At the third media timeout, which came at the 7:58 mark, the Cavaliers still had only two points, and it was fair to wonder if they would crack double figures by halftime.
“I just looked at the guys,” Bennett said, “and I said, `All we got is each other, and we’re going to have to try to figure this out. Just keep hanging defensively and don’t let `em get separated, and we’re going to get a bucket or two and see what we can do.’ ”
Fortunately for the `Hoos, their defense was as good as their offense was bad. With an opportunity to blow the game open early, the Orange (18-12, 9-8) failed to do so against the nation’s top-ranked scoring defense. Thirteen minutes in, Syracuse had only 13 points.
“We had a few breakdowns defensively, but overall it held us in there until our offense got on track,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers’ comeback started with an NBA-length 3-pointer by junior forward Evan Nolte that made it 13-5 with 6:04 left in the half.
“Huge,” Brogdon said of Nolte’s trey.
“That was big,” Bennett said. “You gotta make some shots against the zone.”
Once Nolte broke through, shots started dropping regularly for UVa. After sophomore point guard London Perrantes’ first trey pulled Virginia to 17-12, Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney answered with a deep 3-pointer that banked off the glass and through the hoop as the shot clock sounded.
That was it, though, for the Orange in the first half. UVa closed on an 11-0 run capped by a Perrantes runner and took a 23-20 lead into halftime.
“And that’s hard on the opposing team,” Bennett said. “You get off to this huge lead and then all of the sudden we get back [in the game]. That’s a hard momentum swing to absorb from Syracuse’s standpoint, and I knew that.”
Nolte opened the second half with another 3-pointer to make it 26-20, and by the 16:52 mark Virginia had a double-digit lead. Little drama followed, in part because the `Hoos destroyed the Orange on the glass.
“The real story in the basketball game is 42-20 on the boards,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “That’s all it takes.”
As strong as the Orange can be defensively with its 2-3, the zone is vulnerable to opponents with gifted offensive-rebounders, and Virginia fits that description. Of the Cavaliers’ 42 rebounds, 16 came at the offensive end, and they parlayed them into 15 second-chance points.
“I think our guards actually missed pretty well tonight,” Gill said, smiling. “I think that helped us out too.”
Bennett said: “At times we have some struggles offensively, so we knew an opportunity against any zone, and theirs is so good, is to offensive-rebound. That’s why we wanted to always have one or two guys near the glass, and our best offense for a while was throwing it up there and going and getting some offensive rebounds.”
Gill led all scorers with 17 points and, with nine boards, shared rebounding honors with Atkins. Tobey, who’s from Monroe, N.Y., played well against Syracuse at JPJ last season, totaling 11 points and eight rebounds, and he sparkled again Monday night.
Tobey finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench.
“I thought he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said.
Brogdon, a 6-5 guard, finished with seven turnovers, two more than his previous high in a college game, but he also contributed 10 points. Four came on emphatic first-half dunks that fueled the Cavaliers’ rally.
“Just trying to do whatever to get the team ignited, get us going a little bit,” Brogdon said.
A two-year starter who broke his nose Feb. 22 and then reinjured it Saturday, Perrantes played one of his finest games as a Cavalier on Monday night. In 37 minutes, he scored 10 points and rang up a career-best 10 assists for his first career double-double. Perrantes also had a team-high three steals, grabbed five rebounds and turned the ball over only once.
The `Hoos had only one practice to prepare for Syracuse, and it took them a while to crack its vaunted 2-3.
“We just knew with the zone we had to be able to create off the dribble and not just rely on 3-pointers,” Perrantes said. “Once we found some crevices in the zone, we tried to get in there and get the big men the ball and knock down some 3s.”
At the final media timeout, with 3:53 remaining, Syracuse fans by the thousands began leaving the arena. Those who remained paid tribute at the 1:00 mark to 6-9 senior Rakeem Christmas, who left his final home game to a standing ovation.
Christmas, an All-ACC candidate candidate, came in averaging 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds. The `Hoos held him to 10 points and four boards. Overall, Syracuse shot only 38.3 percent from the floor.
“It’s what we do,” Bennett said of his team’s defense. “That’s our identity.”
That defense has carried this group to the best 29-game record in program history. The 1981-82 Cavaliers were 27-1 before losing in overtime to then-ACC rival Maryland in College Park.
The 2014-15 Cavaliers will head into the ACC tournament seeded No. 1, which puts them into the noon quarterfinal March 12 at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“They clearly are the second-best team in the country” — behind unbeaten Kentucky — “from what I’ve seen,” Boeheim said.
“I think they are tremendously well-coached. They’ve got tremendous physical strength. The players are underrated – they are much better players than people might think. There’s a reason they’ve just lost one game. I think they can beat just about anybody.”
The `Hoos left Charlottesville on Sunday night hoping to make history in Syracuse. That goal accomplished, they flew home Monday night happy, but not satisfied.
“To do it back-to-back is awesome,” Tobey said, “but we have one more regular-season game, and then postseason is really what counts for us.”
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE: Virginia closes the regular season Saturday at No. 16 Louisville (23-6, 11-5). ESPN will televise the 6:30 p.m. game.
The Cardinals, who are in their first season in the ACC, host No. 12 Notre Dame (24-5, 12-4) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Virginia and Louisville will face each other twice every regular season in men’s basketball. When they met Feb. 7 at John Paul Jones Arena, the `Hoos edged the Cards 52-47 despite playing the second half without All-ACC candidate Justin Anderson (13.4 ppg).
Anderson, a junior swingman, fractured the small finger on his shooting hand late in the first half against Louisville, and he’s missed the past seven games. He’s likely to return for the ACC tournament, if not for the regular-season finale.