By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the UVa men’s basketball team, there was elation when the final horn sounded Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena. There was a measure of relief, too.
The Cavaliers, seeded No. 2 in the East Region, expected a battle in their NCAA tournament opener, and that’s what No. 15 seed Belmont gave them.
With 4:35 left, after a deep 3-pointer by Belmont guard Craig Bradshaw, Virginia’s lead, once 14, was down to two. On the Bruins’ previous possession, Bradshaw had banked in a 3-pointer from the right wing, and the 6-3 junior seemed poise to play the protagonist in one of the magical stories for which the NCAA tourney is known.
“He’s fearless,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said of Bradshaw. “He loves situations like that.”
Sixth-ranked UVa has players like that too, however, and with the game on the line, they asserted themselves, as they have so many times this season.
With the shot clock about to expire, sophomore point guard London Perrantes pulled up for a jumper that made it 64-60 with 3:58 left. Perrantes later passed inside to redshirt junior big man Anthony Gill, whose three-point play made it 69-60 and allowed the thousands of orange-clad fans in the crowd of 16,551 to exhale, if only for a moment.
And then there were redshirt junior guard Malcolm Brogdon and junior swingman Justin Anderson, each of whom went 4 for 4 from the line in the final 1:32. It all added up to a hard-earned 79-67 victory for UVa, which advances to meet No. 7 seed Michigan State in a third-round game Sunday, at a time to be announced.
“It’s going to be a tough fight,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be a physical game that we’re absolutely ready for.”
Coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans (24-11) defeated No. 10 seed Georgia 70-63 in the first game in Charlotte on Friday afternoon.
Belmont’s system could not be much different than that of Michigan State, a classically rugged Big Ten team. The Bruins have only one starter taller than 6-7, and their roster is stocked with 3-point specialists, among them former Virginia guard Taylor Barnette.
And that’s why this matchup concerned the Cavaliers. As good as their Pack-Line defense has been this season — the Wahoos came in with the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (50.8 ppg) — it can be vulnerable against teams that shoot well from outside. That describes Belmont, which came in having made 321 treys.
“We knew it was going to be a very difficult, challenging game,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “You just don’t see a lot of teams that can spread the floor like that, that can shoot the ball and have the kind of guys that just keep coming at you, that can even bank 3s when they’re going the way Bradshaw did.
“But it was good for us to be in a game like that. Our young men have been in a lot of games like that where we had to just outlast [the opponent] and stay in there and make some plays and even overcome some of our mistakes, but find ways [to win]. And they had to do that, and I hope it will serve us well heading into Sunday’s game against obviously a very good Michigan State team.”
That will be a rematch, of course, of last year’s Sweet Sixteen clash between the `Hoos and the Spartans, who prevailed 61-59 at Madison Square Garden. Most of the players from that UVa team are back, including Brogdon, Anderson, Gill, Perrantes, 6-8 senior Darion Atkins, 6-8 junior Evan Nolte and 7-0 junior Mike Tobey.
After the loss to Michigan State last year, Gill said Friday, “I remember in the locker room everybody just said, `Remember how this feels.’ I think this isn’t going to be a revenge game, just us going out there and do what we do.”
Brogdon said: “I agree with Anthony 100 percent, it’s not about revenge, it’s about going out there and establishing ourselves and making it to the next game. The hungrier team is going to win on Sunday, so we’re going to come out and try to be hungry.”
The Cavaliers (30-3) came out with purpose Friday and led 40-32 at the break, thanks in part of Brogdon’s marksmanship. He hit four treys, matching his career high, and scored 16 points in the first half.
In the second half, Brogdon was 0 for 6 from the floor, but he was 6 for 6 from the line and finished with a team-point 22 points. Gill added 16 points, and Atkins contributed 10.
“They’re big guys, big, strong guys and they’re hard to deal with down there,” Belmont’s Evan Bradds said of UVa’s post players. “Gill’s a monster, and he got to the line a lot tonight.”
For most of the game, Bennett went with a smaller lineup that included Nolte, who’s primarily a perimeter player, at power forward, along with Brogdon, Perrantes, Anderson and either Gill or Atkins. The `Hoos surrendered 36 points in the paint — much more than they typically allow — but their 3-point defense was sound.
On his way to a game-high 25 points, Bradshaw hit 5 of 9 shots from beyond the arc, but his teammates were a combined 3 for 16. Barnette, a redshirt sophomore, finished 1 for 7 from long range after knocking down his first attempt.
Barnette came in having made 83 of 208 shots (39.9 percent) from beyond the arc.
Even great 3-point shooters “are going to have their good days and their bad days,” Byrd said, “and you live and die with it sometimes, and I just think he had a bad day.”
Barnette said: “I wish it would have turned out differently, but I have a lot of respect for [the Cavaliers], and I wish them the best the rest of the way.”
Virginia, not known for its outside shooting, was more accurate than Belmont from 3-point range, hitting 6 of 17 attempts (35.3 percent). Perhaps the most memorable of those treys came with 13:29 left in the first half. That’s when Anderson, who’d missed a 3-pointer earlier in that possession, connected from the left corner.
“It felt good for it to go down,” he said.
The points were the first for Anderson since Feb. 7, when he fractured the small finger on his shooting hand against Louisville. Anderson had been ready to return from that injury when he had another setback: a March 5 appendectomy that kept him from playing in the regular-season finale, the eighth straight game he missed.
A second-team All-ACC selection, Anderson played in Virginia’s two games at the ACC tournament last week, but he didn’t score in either one. He finished with 15 points Friday, making 4 of 6 shots from the floor and 6 of 7 from the line, and also grabbed five rebounds.
“I’m glad that he got his feet wet, hit a couple shots and did some good things for us,” Perrantes said, “and hopefully he can keep it going on Sunday.”
Anderson said: “I just wanted to make sure I stayed confident and trusted everything that we’ve done and the work that I’ve put in, trying to get back on the court.”
Asked about Anderson’s breakthrough, Bennett spoke at length about the fan favorite.
“He is unique,” Bennett said. “He never got discouraged. I remember when he was supposed to be able to play at Louisville, has one practice under his belt, had a decent practice, was excited to play and all of a sudden he has to have the [appendectomy] and he said, `Coach, my faith is big, I’ll be OK,’ and he was such an encourager through it … His attitude was impressive.”
So was Anderson’s performance Friday afternoon, as was his team’s poise down the stretch. The `Hoos hit 11 of 13 shots from the line in the final 2:35 to hold off the Bruins.
“That’s tremendous,” Anderson said, “especially given how we sometimes go in our little slumps with free throws. But that’s what sealed the deal, I think, when you look back at it. That helped us secure a win, for sure.”
Perrantes said: “We need every point we can so we can win these games. And to be able to hit our free throws at this time [of year] is huge, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
COLLECTIVE EFFORT: There’s more to UVa than its vaunted Pack-Line defense. Cavaliers committed only seven turnovers Friday, and Perrantes was a point away from joining Brogdon, Gill, Atkins and Anderson in double figures. For the game, Virginia shot 45.6 percent from the floor.
What makes the `Hoos so good, Byrd said, is that there are “a lot of guys on that team that can score 15 or 16 points in a game, and you can’t just focus on any one guy. They’re a better offensive team than they get credit for only because they’re such a great defensive team.”
Gill said: “I definitely think we have some talent on offense, too. I think that people do overlook that at times. They see our defense and see how well we play on defense and then they just X out the fact that we play offense sometimes. But I think that we have great players on offense, and I think that once we get into a rhythm we’re able to exploit a lot of different things.”
MILESTONE: For the first time in program history, the `Hoos have won 30 games in back-to-back seasons. They finished 30-7 in 2013-14.
“That’s a credit to these guys and what they’ve done just to be able to sustain it,” said Bennett, who’s in his sixth season at UVa.
“You know, we had a vision when we came in to try to turn the program around, and there’s nothing better than being part of a turnaround. But to establish it and try to stay at that level, that brings other unique opportunities and challenges, and to at least establish that from a win number is good and I’m very thankful. I’m thankful for the guys that have stayed tough-minded, that haven’t gotten caught up in how we do it but that we do it, and we do it together and in a way that’s best for us and that’s all we do.”
MUTUAL ADMIRATION: Byrd praised Bennett after the game, and Bennett responded in kind.
“Coach Byrd is a tremendous man, a tremendous coach,” Bennett said. “He’s kind of near and dear to my heart because he wears a sweater vest, and my father used to wear a sweater vest when he coached, I told [Byrd] that before, but what he’s done with that program and how he’s lasted was remarkable.”
This is the seventh time in 10 seasons that Byrd has guided the Bruins to the NCAA tournament. His record in 29 seasons at the Nashville, Tenn., school is 619-312.