By Jeff White (email@example.com)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The final minutes would have been less anxious for the orange-clad fans in the stands, as well as the players and coaches on the home bench, had Virginia played as well in the second half as it had in the first at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“But we labored,” head coach Tony Bennett said.
The first 20 minutes were much different. Before a crowd dominated by their supporters, the Cavaliers shot 63.2 percent from the floor and took a 34-17 lead into the break.
“Coach Bennett challenged us to come out with a little bit more fire in this game, and I thought we did,” redshirt junior Malcolm Brogdon said. “I thought we came out and we played harder, and executed better.”
In the second half, though, the Wahoos broke down repeatedly at both ends of the floor. And so the first quarterfinal of the ACC men’s basketball tournament grew tighter and tighter. Ninth-seeded Florida State’s deficit was only five points with six minutes to play and six at the 3:25 mark.
But the Seminoles (17-16) came no closer. Top-seeded UVa closed with a 10-2 run to advance to the semifinal round for the second straight season. The 58-44 victory was not the blowout it might have been, but the defending champion Cavaliers (29-2) were happy to be moving on.
“However we can get it, I’ll take it,” sophomore point guard London Perrantes said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game coming in, and it was. We started off strong [and then struggled], but we finished it off.”
Standing between Virginia and a second straight appearance in the ACC championship game is fifth-seeded North Carolina, which ousted fourth-seeded Louisville 70-60 in the second quarterfinal Thursday.
When they met Feb. 2 in Chapel Hill, the `Hoos rolled to a 75-64 win over the Tar Heels at the Dean E. Smith Center. The rematch is Friday at 7 p.m.
For the Heels (23-10), the game will be their third in three days. Carolina eliminated Boston College in a second-round game Wednesday.
The Cavaliers had byes in the first and second rounds. That meant their tournament opener was their first game in Greensboro since March 16, 2014, when they defeated Duke in the ACC championship game.
The UVa-FSU game tipped off around 12:10 p.m. Thursday. At 11 a.m., Justin Anderson emerged from a tunnel and joined his teammates for warmups, to the delight of early-arriving Virginia fans.
Anderson, a 6-6 junior who this week was named to the All-ACC second team, missed the final eight games of the regular season, the last one after having an appendectomy March 5. He played Thursday for the first time since Feb. 7, the night he fractured the small finger on his shooting hand in the first half of UVa’s win over Louisville at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I felt 100-percent good,” Anderson said. “We’ve been doing workouts, and I’ve been practicing and doing things like that. There was no, `Go out there and see how you feel.’ Coach knew that I was ready to go, and I told Coach, `No excuses.’ ”
He checked in at the 15:22 mark of the first half, to a standing ovation from Virginia fans. In his 12 minutes Thursday, Anderson grabbed two rebounds and turned the ball over once. He missed his two shots from the floor and didn’t score. No matter. His teammates were thrilled to have No. 1 back.
“He’s been through a lot,” Perrantes said. “If I was in that situation, I would be devastated, but to be able to have him back out on the court, regardless of what he did today, is just huge for us.”
Asked about Anderson, who survived a hard fall late in the first half, Bennett said, “I was so thankful that he could be out there. Of course he looked rusty … but my hope is next time he’s out there, he’s better, and you just kind of have to go through that.”
Anderson (13.4 ppg) entered the ACC tournament as the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer, behind only Brogdon (13.7). A 6-5 guard, Brogdon played only seven minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls, and he went into intermission scoreless.
His absence didn’t faze UVa — not with Perrantes, 6-8 senior Darion Atkins, 6-8 redshirt junior Anthony Gill, 7-0 junior Mike Tobey, 6-8 Evan Nolte, 6-5 freshman Marial Shayok and 6-7 freshman Isaiah Wilkins playing well.
When Brogdon went to bench, Shayok drew the assignment of covering FSU freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who scored 30 points Wednesday against Clemson. Shayok’s defense helped the Cavaliers hold Rathan-Mayes, who missed 12 of 18 shots from the floor, to 13 points.
“Marial gave us a nice lift when Malcolm got in foul trouble,” Bennett said.
Shayok said: “I just tried to play sound and play within our defense, just make it hard for [Rathan-Mayes] to score: contest every shot and keep him in front of me.”
Like Brogdon, Gill battled foul trouble Thursday but still finished with nine points and a team-high seven rebounds. Nolte and Tobey led the Cavaliers with 11 points apiece.
For Nolte, who moved into the starting lineup after Anderson got hurt, it was his first game in double figures this season. He was 3 for 4 from the floor, all from beyond the 3-point arc, and 2 for 2 from the line.
“I’ve been saying Evan has been so steady for us,” Bennett said, “and it hasn’t always showed statistically. Well, today it showed with him stretching that defense and making some good plays.”
Nolte has made at least two 3-pointers in four of the Cavaliers’ past five games. He’s been trying to put more arc on his outside shot, and his efforts are paying dividends.
“I think, also, playing and getting a lot more minutes and reps also gets you in the flow,” Nolte said, “and gets you in rhythm and used to those type of shots in game-type situations.”
Virginia scored on its first three possessions to take a 7-0 lead, with Perrantes picking up an assist on each one. He finished with nine assists, one fewer than his career high.
Brogdon, a member of the All-ACC first team, wasn’t as productive Thursday. He was 2 for 8 from the floor and didn’t score until the 8:59 mark of the second half, when his midrange jumper stretched UVa’s lead to 41-34.
“I thought he was pressing a little bit,” Bennett said.
In the final 5:29, though, Brogdon hit another jumper and went 6 for 6 from the line to reach double figures for the 25th time this season.
“We’ll need more from him,” Bennett said. “He knows that. But he did make some key buckets.”
SCARY MOMENT: Atkins, the media’s choice as ACC defensive player of the year, stayed down, in obvious pain, at the 16:10 mark of the second half after injuring his right ankle.
With help from assistant coach Jason Williford and athletic trainer Ethan Saliba, Atkins eventually got to his feet and limped to the UVa bench. Saliba heavily taped the ankle, and Atkins re-entered the game with 13:10 left.
“Right now I’m fine,” Atkins said after the game. “Initially when I went down, everyone, including myself, thought it was going to be pretty bad, but I’m going to get some treatment, and I’ll be all right.”
BUNDLE OF ENERGY: Wilkins, who like Brogdon graduated from Greater Atlanta Christian School, contributed three points, three rebounds and one blocked shot in 12 minutes in his ACC tournament debut.
“He’s awesome, and he gives 100 percent all the time,” Gill said. “He’s always crashing the glass and things of that nature, and if he doesn’t get the rebound, he’s allowing somebody else to get the rebound. It’s good for us. Regardless if he’s scoring or not, he brings the energy into the game.”
Wilkins made one field goal Thursday, reaching behind his head to tip in a missed shot by Perrantes with 1:40 left in the first half.
“I just tried to slap at it, to try to tip it to Mike [Tobey] or somebody like that, and it ended up going in,” Wilkins said, smiling.
In Virginia’s final two regular-season games, Wilkins played only seven minutes. But with Gill in foul trouble and, later, Atkins moving gingerly, Wilkins’ role grew Thursday.
“It’s a next-man-up mentality,” Wilkins said. “It’s just fun to go out there and feel like I can play with no pressure and just rely on these older guys to get us through.”
His classmate Shayok was similarly enthused after his first ACC tournament game.
“Every game with this team has been a blessing,” Shayok said. “It’s a great feeling.”
CLEANING THE GLASS: In the regular-season finale at Louisville, Tobey came off the bench to grab six rebounds in 23 minutes. He had six in 21 minutes Thursday and again battled relentlessly around the basket.
“If he keeps playing like that, the sky’s the limit for him,” Atkins said.
TEAM FIRST: Anderson said he grew uncomfortable with all the media attention he received during his absence.
“There’s been so many times we’d be in the locker room and I’d hear on TV, `Oh, I’m not sure this team can do it without Justin Anderson,’ and I’d cut the TV off,” Anderson said, “just because, this team is not built off of one player. This team would never be like that. The system that we have in place, with Coach Bennett and the guys we have who have bought in, the toughness we have on our team, it would never be around one person.”