March 22, 2015
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the University of Virginia men’s basketball team trudged off the court at Time Warner Cable Arena, the fans in the section behind the UVa bench stood and applauded in acknowledgment of a glorious season.
The tribute was heartfelt, but it may be a while before the Cavaliers are able to fully appreciate their 2014-15 accomplishments. They’d hoped to still be playing when the calendar turned to April. Instead, their postseason run ended abruptly Sunday afternoon with a 60-54 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament’s third round.
“Obviously, we did a lot of really good things this year, but we had a lot more to do and we didn’t get there,” sophomore point guard London Perrantes said.
“It’s really frustrating knowing how much talent’s on this team, knowing how good we really could be,” said Anthony Gill, a redshirt junior who led Virginia with 11 points and also grabbed six rebounds.
“But falling short of our goals and falling short of what we wanted, knowing that we are so good and knowing that we can do it and we have the pieces to do it, we have the system to do it, and just falling short, that’s probably the thing that hurts the most.”
The Wahoos, seeded No. 2 in the East Region, finished their sixth season under head coach Tony Bennett with a 30-4 record. The losses were to Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Michigan State, four of college basketball’s most storied programs, by a total of 18 points.
Those four teams make up a quarter of this year’s Sweet Sixteen. Seventh-seeded Michigan State (25-11) will meet No. 3 seed Oklahoma on Friday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.
The Sweet Sixteen, of course, is where Cavaliers’ 2013-14 season ended, against the team that’s fast becoming their postseason nemesis, Michigan State.
Those Spartans edged the `Hoos 61-59 at Madison Square Garden. In the rematch, Michigan State raced out to a 15-4 lead behind senior guard Travis Trice, who scored 13 points in the first 5:32.
“I thought he was too comfortable at the beginning,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “We were just not pushing him out of his comfort zone. Players at this level, if you let them get comfortable, they are going to knock down shots.”
Bennett said: “We dug ourselves a hole.”
The pattern was painfully familiar to the Cavaliers, who sputtered early in four of their final six games. Against Syracuse, they were able to rally for a win. Against Louisville, North Carolina (in the ACC tournament) and Michigan State, the slow starts proved more than Virginia could overcome. The Cavaliers led only once Sunday, at 2-0.
“You can’t start games off like that,” Gill said.
Still, the Cavaliers fought back, as they did all season. They held Michigan State scoreless for the final 4:04 of the first half and went into the break trailing 23-18, a deficit that was not insurmountable.
“After that first five minutes, it wasn’t a matter of heart or effort,” Bennett said. “I thought our guys laid it on the line, but when we needed a key stop or a bucket to be made, it wasn’t there.”
The Spartans hounded UVa into its worst shooting performance of the season. The `Hoos made only 17 of 57 shots from the floor (29.8 percent). From 3-point range, they were 2 for 17 (11.8 percent) and their second trey came with 26.1 seconds left, when Michigan State had all but secured the victory.
“I thought offensively we were out of rhythm,” said Brogdon, who, with nine points, failed to reach double figures for the first time since Feb. 15. “It’s hard to have rhythm when you don’t see them go through the net. Michigan State played good defense.”
Virginia’s starting guards, Brogdon and Perrantes, were a combined 1 for 10 from beyond the arc and 5 for 22 overall. Junior swingman Justin Anderson, who started for the first time since Feb. 7, the night he broke the small finger on his shooting hand, was 0 for 4 from 3-point range.
UVa corralled 18 offensive rebounds but turned them into only 17 second-chance points. The Cavaliers attempted 17 more field goals than Michigan State; they just didn’t make enough of those shots.
“Your defense can only hang in there so long,” Bennett said.
Perrantes said: “It felt like we couldn’t buy a bucket, and [the Spartans] bought everything. We just couldn’t hit shots. We got some good open looks. We got into the lane. We got free throws, a bunch of free throws. Something was on top of the bucket for us today.”
The Cavaliers turned the ball over only five times, but those mistakes led to seven points for Michigan State.
“We didn’t have a lot of turnovers, but a couple of them were crucial,” Bennett said, “the ones we call `live-ball turnovers,’ when they run down and get points off of them.”
And yet, after Anderson scored on a drive with 18:43 left, Virginia trailed by only two, 24-22, and its fans, convinced the Spartans were about to crack, roared their approval.
Michigan State quickly silenced them. After Brogdon missed a 3-point attempt that would have put the `Hoos ahead 25-24, Michigan State answered with a trey by Denzel Valentine, whose shot bounced around the rim before dropping through to make it 27-22. Virginia big man Darion Atkins had his shot blocked at the other end, and MSU forward Branden Dawson hit two free throws to make it 29-22.
After a Perrantes miss, Dawson converted a three-point play, and suddenly the Spartans’ lead was 10 with 17:00 remaining.
Dawson, a 6-6, 225-pound senior who had 24 points and 10 rebounds against UVa last season, finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and a game-high four blocked shots Sunday.
“I think his eyes light up when he sees Virginia,” Bennett said. “He was a man, made some tough shots, blocked shots, got on the glass. You can see why he is as good as he is. He plays well in big games.”
That’s been the Spartans’ trademark under head coach Tom Izzo, who improved his record in NCAA tournament games to 44-16. But their latest victory did not come easily. Virginia rallied repeatedly, pulling to 38-34 with 11:09 left, to 45-41 with 5:33 to play, and to 49-44 with 3:23 remaining.
“So as much as we struggled,” Bennett said, “it was still a two-possession game.”
But Michigan State never collapsed, time and again countering when the Cavaliers attacked.
With 2:50 to play, the 6-0 Trice, well-defended by the 6-5 Brogdon, buried a 3-pointer with the shot clock about to expire, pushing the Spartans’ lead to 52-44.
“I didn’t have a doubt in my mind, during the course of the game, that we were going to win that game,”Anderson said. “This team’s resiliency and the ability to fight, I knew that collectively we had our heads in and we knew what we had to do to fight back. It hurts. You pull that close in the second half and they hit a big shot or get a big bucket, whatever the case may be.”
When the final horn sounded, Gill immediately sought out Atkins, the only scholarship player among the team’s seniors.
“I made an effort to speak to him, because he’s meant so much to this team,” Gill said. “To fight through everything he’s fought through, and to be able to contribute to the team this year like he has and be really the defensive anchor for this team this year, it speaks volumes about who he is as a person.
“Because he’s been through everything. Talk about waiting your turn, I think he’s the perfect model for the person who waited their turn and waited till his senior year to really be able to contribute to the team.”
In his final game as a Cavalier, the 6-8 Atkins totaled 10 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, a fitting end to a breakout season in which he was the media’s choice as ACC defensive player of the year.
`I definitely take pride in my career here and how I’ve persevered and faced adversity and tried to finish strong in my last season,” Atkins said.
“I’m glad I stayed, and I wouldn’t choose any other team, any other coach, to be with and battle with. The young guys now see what we can accomplish, what we should have accomplished, and how we need to play in order to be great and reach excellence.”
Atkins played 29 minutes Sunday. He would have played more had he not been called for his fourth foul, with 8:40 remaining, on what appeared to be a clean block of a dunk attempt by Gavin Schilling. Because of his foul trouble, Atkins went to the bench and didn’t re-enter the game until the 4:21 mark.
“That hurt,” Bennett said of the call on Atkins. “It seemed like there was a little bit of a momentum shift there, but that really hurt us. Maybe when I watch the tape I’ll realize I overreacted to it, but I thought it was a good block, and we needed everything at that time.”
By the time the Cavaliers cleared out of their locker room, they could hear the cheers of the crowd watching Duke and San Diego State in the second game of this NCAA doubleheader at the Charlotte Hornets’ arena. Duke romped 68-49, and so its season will continue.
The `Hoos, who finished ahead of the Blue Devils in the ACC regular-season standings, were left to rue their final 2014-15 performance.
“It just leaves that feeling that you wish you could have taken it further,” Bennett said. “But it doesn’t take away, once the dust settles, what this team accomplished.”