Feb. 28, 2016
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — John Paul Jones Arena, the scene of near-pandemonium for much of the day, had grown quiet by the time University of Virginia forward Isaiah Wilkins posted a message on Twitter around 10 p.m. Saturday.
“Love the fan support. #Wahoowa,” Wilkins tweeted.
Rarely has a crowd at JPJ been louder than it was Saturday night, when third-ranked Virginia hosted seventh-ranked North Carolina in a much-anticipated ACC men’s basketball game. ESPN’s College GameDay crew was in town, and many of the thousands of fans who came out for the show Saturday morning, including students who had camped out overnight, returned for the main event.
They made their presence known each time, and never more so than in the second half Saturday night, when the Cavaliers pulled away for a hard-earned 79-74 victory before 14,593 at JPJ.
“I gotta give the crowd an assist,” head coach Tony Bennett said. “The atmosphere was unbelievable. It revved us up and got us going.”
The victory was the Wahoos’ 19th straight at JPJ, where they haven’t lost since Jan. 31, 2015, the date, coincidentally, of College GameDay’s first visit to Charlottesville. Virginia is 14-0 at JPJ this season.
“We’re just trying to protect our home court, and our crowd is a huge part of that,” junior point guard London Perrantes said. “We play a lot off their energy.”
UNC (23-6 overall, 12-4 ACC) shot 50 percent from the floor in the second half, but whenever the Cavaliers (22-6, 11-5) faltered, the orange-clad legions in the stands urged them on. The sellout crowd included former Virginia players Wally Walker, Ralph Sampson, Joe Harris, Jim Miller, Jontel Evans, Thomas Rogers, Rob Vozenilek and Will Sherrill.
“It’s awesome,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said of the atmosphere. “I’m not sure we would have won that game without our fans and all the support we had. I saw people yesterday camping outside of JPJ like they do at Duke. The culture at UVA — the basketball culture — has changed so much, and we wouldn’t be where we are without our fans.”
The `Hoos, who remain in contention for a third straight ACC regular-season title, wouldn’t be where they are without Brogdon, either. His candidacy for ACC player of the year grows stronger with each game. A fifth-year senior from Atlanta, the 6-5 Brogdon scored 26 points Saturday night and added six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“He does it every single night out,” Perrantes said. “He led us, started off strong, and we just all followed.”
This marked the 15th game in which Brogdon has scored at least 20 points this season, and he passed John Crotty to move into 13th place on UVA’s all-time scoring list. Brogdon now has 1,652 career points.
“He’s been terrific, really, most all of the conference play,” Bennett said. “Really most all of his career, I should say.”
In the first half Saturday night, as the Cavaliers’ other main scoring threats, Perrantes and 6-8 fifth-year senior Anthony Gill, struggled to find their rhythm offensively, Brogdon took over. He went 6 for 8 from the line — 2 for 2 from beyond the arc — and 3 for 3 from the line, helping Virginia take a 38-35 lead into intermission.
The first-half gem from Brogdon “was as good a performance we’ve had against us this season and maybe several years,” Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.
Brogdon said: “I just had opportunities. I try to come out aggressive every game, I try to take what the defense gives me. But at the same time, I also try to sense when my team is struggling on offense or is doing well on offense, and I sort of adjust my game to that. That’s really what you saw tonight.”
No. 15 could not do it alone, of course, and by game’s end the box score showed three other Cavaliers in double figures: Gill (15 points), Perrantes (12) and redshirt sophomore guard Devon Hall (11). For Hall, whose two free throws with 14.5 seconds left closed the scoring, that matched his career high in an ACC game.
Wilkins played a pivotal role as well. In the second half of Virginia’s previous game — a three-point loss at No. 12 Miami on Monday night — the 6-7 sophomore from Atlanta was inadvertently struck in the head and suffered a concussion. Wilkins didn’t return to practice until Thursday, and he didn’t participate fully until Friday.
His value to the team was evident again Saturday night. Wilkins played 30 minutes and contributed eight points, five rebounds, two steals, one assist and innumerable hustle plays, the most memorable of which came with Virginia leading 71-64.
After a missed jumper by Gill, Wilkins battled two Tar Heels for the rebound. The ball went off Carolina, giving UVA another possession at the 3:01 mark.
`He’s an important piece,” Bennett said of Wilkins. “He’s that glue guy, and he really gave everything he had, for really only practicing a practice and a half.”
Gill was another hero for the Cavaliers. He hit 6 of 11 shots from the floor, made 3 of 4 from the line, and pulled down a game-high nine rebounds.
His return to form came at an opportune time for the Cavaliers. Gill, who had at least 10 points in each of Virginia’s first 22 games, scored six or fewer in three of the next five. Against Miami, he made only 3 of 9 attempts from the floor.
“For some reason my shot wasn’t falling,” Gill said. “I just stayed with it, and tonight was a case of my teammates continuing to trust me and Coach Bennett still putting me in those positions to score.”
Perrantes said Gill “just needed to get his rhythm back, and hopefully this keeps him going … When he’s going, we’re tough to stop. I’m glad we got him rolling today.”
Sophomore guard Joel Berry II led the Tar Heels with 21 points, and senior guard Marcus Paige added 13. But Virginia limited North Carolina’s candidate for ACC player of the year, 6-10 senior Brice Johnson, to 12 points.
“They really dictated the entire game,” Johnson said of the Cavaliers.
Williams agreed. “I think they were the actors, and we were the reactors all night. Their offense was more aggressive than our defense was, and their defense was more aggressive than our offense was.”
Johnson had seven rebounds, but only two came at the offensive end. He recorded four assists but turned the ball over five times.
“He got very discouraged,” Williams said.
That was never the case for the `Hoos, who led for more than 34 minutes Saturday night. Virginia turned the ball over only eight times and gave up exactly two fast-break points to the Heels, who look to run at every opportunity.
“They’re a tough team, and it was a great win for us,” Hall said.
The victory moved Virginia into a tie for third place in the ACC, with two regular-season games left. The Cavaliers almost certainly need to win both to have a chance at a third straight regular-season championship.
“The fact that we’re in the race still … is terrific,” Bennett said, “and we’ll keep fighting and running to win that prize.”
That prize may elude them. Still, the `Hoos took an important step Saturday night in what Brogdon said felt like a postseason setting.
“People say [UNC is] the best team in the country, the most talented team,” Brogdon said. “In this type of atmosphere it’s a very special thing, it’s a very special moment. You have to put it in perspective and just understand that it’s one game, win or lose. But it’s definitely a special moment on a huge stage, and this game does determine a lot coming down the stretch for the ACC title.”
HOME STRETCH: Virginia’s penultimate regular-season game is Tuesday at 7 p.m. against Clemson (16-12, 9-7) in Greenville, S.C.
Clemson’s on-campus arena, Littlejohn Coliseum, is being renovated. The Tigers are playing their home games at 15,951-seat Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville.
Virginia is looking to sweep its regular-season series with Clemson. When the teams met Jan. 19 at at JPJ, Brogdon scored 20 points to lead the Cavaliers to a 69-62 victory.
UVA closes the regular season Saturday at 8:30 p.m. against No. 11 Louisville. ESPN will televise the game.