By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — That there was magic in the air at John Paul Jones Arena was clear Saturday night, long before Caid Kirven’s 3-pointer set off a rapturous celebration among his University of Virginia teammates.
The fans who packed JPJ for the final time this season sensed, during the emotional Senior Night ceremony that preceded the game, that something special would follow. They were correct.
Fourth-ranked Virginia opened the game with a 10-0 run, stunning a Louisville team playing for the final time this season. The Cavaliers closed with five straight points to seal a 68-46 victory seemingly scripted in Hollywood.
Seniors Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte, Mike Tobey and Kirven combined for 56 points to lead Virginia (24-6 overall, 13-5 ACC) past 11th-ranked Louisville (23-8, 12-6).
The 22-point margin of victory was the largest for the Wahoos over a ranked opponent since they routed No. 6 Maryland 92-67 on March 5, 1995. Virginia, 15-0 at JPJ this season, finished unbeaten at home for the first time since 1981-82.
“It was an amazing night and a great atmosphere,” said Tobey, a 7-0 center who delighted his teammates and coaches, as well as the ecstatic crowd, by grabbing 20 rebounds, the most by a UVA player since Travis Watson in 2003.
“At the end, when he had 19, I just wanted to box my guy out so he could get 20,” Gill said. “He played awesome tonight. I couldn’t be happier for him. I couldn’t be happier for all of the other seniors tonight. We just went out with a bang, which was a great showing of what UVA basketball is all about.”
With the victory — their 20th straight at JPJ — the `Hoos clinched the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament. Virginia will meet No. 7 seed Clemson or No. 10 seed Georgia Tech in the 7 p.m. quarterfinal Thursday at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
Had Duke defeated North Carolina on Saturday night, UVA would have secured the No. 1 seed and a share of a third straight ACC regular-season title. Alas for Virginia, UNC prevailed at Cameron Indoor Stadium to earn the top seed. That did little to dampen the mood inside JPJ, where the crowd included John Paul “Jack” Jones, for whom the arena is named.
With 1:16 left, head coach Tony Bennett inserted Kirven, a walk-on from Raleigh, N.C. For the first time in their UVA careers, the five seniors were on the court together during a game, and they soaked up the crowd’s applause.
“It was cool,” Nolte said. “There’s so many emotions. In the moment you’re kind of worried about getting the ball past halfcourt, but you look around and you’re like, `Wow.’ It’s hard to describe, but it’s an awesome feeling.”
With 44 seconds left, Bennett called a timeout and substituted for Brogdon, Gill, Tobey and Nolte, and they walked off the court to a standing ovation from the fans. Kirven had more work to do.
Alone in the left corner, in front of the Virginia bench, he took a pass from freshman Justice Barkley and never hesitated. Kirven’s 3-pointer swished through with 32 seconds left, and the resulting roar threatened to shake the arena.
“I’ve watched Caid shoot in practice a lot, and that might have been the biggest surprise of the game, him knocking down a 3,” said Bennett, a grin spread across his face. “But I was so happy for him, because he’s had a role that’s significant in practice. He’s a true servant. What a servant’s heart.”
On the sideline, Kirven’s teammates were already on their feet. When they saw his shot go in, they started jumping up and down in celebration, and after the game they swarmed Kirven.
“The only time I’ve ever seen Caid make a 3 in practice is when we were doing the JMU scout [before the 2013-14 opener] and he was [playing the role of] a guy named Andrey Semenov,” Gill said, smiling.
“Ever since then, he hasn’t hit a 3 in practice. And then tonight, he finally hit one in the game, which was awesome. I thought we were going to get a technical foul because everybody pretty much ran on the court when he hit it. It was just an awesome moment.”
Nolte said: “When Caid let that ball go, I thought, `This can’t be true. It’s too good to be true.’ And it went in, and it took me back to Thomas Rogers.”
Rogers, who like Kirven came to Virginia as a walk-on, hit an unforgettable 3-pointer in his final game at JPJ, a victory over Syracuse in 2014. Rogers was in the crowd Saturday night.
“No offense to Thomas, because that was my favorite UVA memory, but I think tonight might have replaced that,” Kirven said.
Bennett brought two of his customary starters off the bench Saturday — sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins and redshirt sophomore guard Devon Hall — and went with Tobey and the 6-8 Nolte in their stead.
For Tobey, it was his first start since Jan. 9. For Nolte, it was his first of the season. Both responded with memorable efforts. Nolte, who had not made more than one 3-pointer in a game all season, buried two treys from the right corner in the opening 10-0 run, bringing the crowd to its feet.
“It means a lot when supporters are chanting your name, even if you’ve gone through some ups and downs in the season, and people are genuinely happy for you,” Nolte said.
“Sometimes I don’t hear it, but tonight I did. I was just trying to soak it all in.”
It’s been a trying season for Tobey, too, but he delivered a dazzling performance in his JPJ finale. He had lunch with Bennett one day last week, Tobey said, and they “talked about what I need to do for the team at the end of the season, to help the team make a big run. And he just said, `Play with reckless abandon,’ and I really just tried to do that tonight.”
Tobey finished with 15 points, one shy of his season high. If there was any doubt that this was his night, it vanished late in the second half when, after tracking down an errant pass from point guard London Perrantes, Tobey turned and put up an off-balance jump shot from the left baseline. It dropped through as the shot clock expired.
“That was crazy,” Tobey said.
More remarkable, though, was his dominance on the backboards. Less than 12 minutes into the game, Tobey had eight rebounds, matching his season high. He eclipsed his previous career high of 16 boards with 3:37 left.
“I don’t know if he can get 20 rebounds every game,” Bennett said, “but he was moving well, and he was inspired. That can help us moving forward, and I expect to see that kind of life and liveliness from him.”
Brogdon, a 6-5 guard who’s a leading candidate for ACC player of the year, scored a game-high 17 points on a night he won’t soon forget.
Fans arrived early at JPJ, not wanting to miss the Senior Night ceremony. Recognized first were student-managers Bryn Blanks, Austin Diduch and Kevin Oberlies. Then came, in order, Kirven, Nolte, Tobey, Gill and, finally, Brogdon, one of the most beloved players in program history.
“I’m really thankful to have had the career that I’ve had at UVA, to have had the opportunity I’ve had on and off the court here,” said Brogdon, who like Gill is a fifth-year senior.
“I’m just really grateful and humbled for the opportunity, and to have been applauded like that, it’s really awesome.”
For Louisville, which last month announced a self-imposed postseason ban, its second encounter of the year with Virginia was as frustrating as the first. When the teams met Jan. 30 in Louisville, the `Hoos never trailed in a 63-47 win over the Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center.
The Cards scored only 14 points in the first half of that game. They scored all of 17 in the first half Saturday night. For the game, Louisville shot 27.6 percent from the floor and, once again, never led.
“Sometimes you can say, `Well, we didn’t shoot well,’ ” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well because Virginia’s a great defensive team. Nobody plays us as well as Virginia.”
Pitino said he told his players, ” ‘You have to hope to be Virginia some day, a well-oiled machine like they are.’ Because they have guys that play together and know how to cover for each other. We have guys that give great effort, but they’re not a synchronized machine yet.”
He won’t watch the NCAA tournament, Pitino said, “but a big part of my heart is going to be rooting for Virginia.”
When the final horn sounded Saturday, Virginia’s players and coaches lined up and shook hands with their Louisville counterparts. Then Bennett led his players to midcourt, where they gathered around him.
Eight months will pass before the Cavaliers play at JPJ again, and Bennett wanted to make sure his players savored this moment.
“I just said, `Look around,’ ” Bennett told reporters at his postgame press conference. “I said, “First, give thanks. Be so thankful for what has transpired in this building over your four years. You guys have honored the pillars of the program. And that’s the greatest gift to me. But look what’s happened. Look at the excitement that’s happened.’
“And I just wanted them to appreciate that. I wanted them to be thankful for what happened and also let them know how appreciative I was. That’s a gift to me. They honored what matters to me and the pillars of our program. But to see their heart and their drive and how they executed and protected their home court was really good this year, that was special.”