By Jeff White (email@example.com)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Friday had given way to Saturday by the time the University of Virginia men’s basketball team returned to its downtown hotel, where an orange-clad throng of cheering supporters greeted the players as they stepped off the bus.
The applause was hard-earned and well-deserved. Two years after winning the second ACC title in program history — and the first time since 1976 — the Cavaliers are one victory away from another championship.
They moved into this position late Friday night with a 73-68 victory over the third-seeded Miami Hurricanes in the second ACC semifinal at Verizon Center.
“We started off playing really well, and then our defense lapsed a little bit and let them back into the game,” Virginia big man Anthony Gill said. “But I think that the way we pulled it out tonight gives us [reason] to believe in ourselves a little bit more.”
In the first semifinal, ACC regular-season champion North Carolina destroyed No. 4 seed Notre Dame 78-47. So now comes the second clash between fourth-ranked UVA (26-6) and seventh-ranked UNC (27-6) in two weeks.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said, “and we’ll have to be at our best.”
On Feb. 27, with ESPN’s GameDay show in town, the Wahoos edged the Tar Heels 79-74 at John Paul Jones Arena. ESPN also will televise the rematch, which is set for Saturday at 9 p.m. at Verizon Center.
“You get up to play every game, but some games a little bit more,” Virginia forward Isaiah Wilkins said. “You always hear about Carolina and Duke growing up. [Saturday night] will be a really good experience.”
In their demolition of the Fighting Irish, the Heels had virtually no anxious moments. That wasn’t the case for the Cavaliers in a game that tipped off at 9:32 p.m. Virginia never trailed Friday night, but Miami (25-7) conceded nothing in the final minutes.
“We never got comfortable,” Gill said. “It was always a struggle for us to keep that lead, because they are such a great team that is always hungry. They’ve got a lot of seniors and a lot of leaders on that team, and we just had to be ready for their best punch at every moment.”
Gill’s two free throws with 3:10 to play made it 63-50, and the score was unchanged 35 seconds later. But then the `Canes, aided by UVA’s poor free-throw shooting, came alive. The final minute need not have included so much drama, but such things happen in the postseason.
“It’s March Madness, man,” Wilkins said, smiling. “That’s really what it’s about: survive and advance right now.”
After a stickback by Anthony Lawrence with three seconds left made it 71-68, ACC player of the year Malcolm Brogdon stepped forward for Virginia, as he has all season. Brogdon, a fifth-year senior, hit a pair of free throws with two seconds remaining, and the `Hoos could finally exhale.
In the final 80 seconds, three Cavaliers went 0 for 2 from the line: redshirt sophomore guard Darius Thompson at the 1:16 mark, sophomore guard Marial Shayok at :29.9 and junior guard London Perrantes at :12.8.
And then there was Brogdon. He was 6 for 6 in the final 46 seconds. For the game, he made 10 of 11 free throws.
“It’s all mental,” Brogdon said. “You just have to step up to the line and be confident in yourself and knock ’em down.
“I feel like that’s one of my roles on this team as one of the older guys: to step to the line confidently at the end of the game and try to finish it.”
Brogdon finished with 24 points and four assists — both game highs — and numerous other Cavaliers made significant contributions on a night when foul trouble limited the 6-8 Gill to 23 minutes.
“I really liked how our guys fought and battled,” Bennett said. “I asked them to have a warrior-like mentality heading into this game … They laid it out there, and now they get a chance to [play for the ACC crown].”
Wilkins, a sophomore, finished with eight points, a team-high seven rebounds and two steals. Perrantes totaled 11 points, three assists and two steals, senior center Mike Tobey had six points and five rebounds, and Thompson added six points and two steals.
With his father, who drove south from Canada for the ACC tournament, watching from behind the UVA bench, Shayok scored 10 points. That matched his season high against an ACC foe.
Shayok had gone scoreless Thursday night in Virginia’s 72-52 win over No. 10 seed Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals.
“I just tried to come out aggressive today,” Shayok said as midnight approached Friday. “I was in foul trouble yesterday, so I didn’t really get in a rhythm. I just wanted to come out and play confident. I obviously play better when I’m confident.”
Thompson had reason to smile, too. In addition to his steals Friday night, he was 1 for 1 from beyond the arc. That was the first trey for Thompson since Jan. 26, when he banked in a desperation 3-pointer as time expired to lift Virginia to a 72-71 win over Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“This was a real 3,” Thompson said, smiling. “It felt good seeing one go in. I haven’t seen one go in for a while. I’ve just got to keep shooting and keep my head up.”
At 7-0, Tobey stands high above the court, but midway through the second half, with Virginia ahead 46-43, he went to the floor, keeping alive a rebound on a possession that ended with a Wilkins layup.
About 90 seconds later, similar hustle from Wilkins led to a Brogdon basket that pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 50-44.
“Those little plays are what help win games,” Perrantes said.
Such plays have been occurring regularly for UVA. The `Hoos have won 13 of their past 15 games.
“I think we’re starting to peak at the right time,” Tobey said. “We’re really playing Virginia basketball now, and as you saw tonight, we got lifts from everybody.
“That’s good for us, being able to go into the depth of our bench, especially going forward in the postseason.”
Miami shot 54.8 percent from the floor Friday night — the highest mark by a UVA opponent this season. Even so, the Cavaliers’ trademark Pack-Line defense made a difference. The `Canes turned the ball over 16 times, and Virginia turned those mistakes into 19 points.
“We’re not a team that presses you really hard and forces turnovers,” Brogdon said. “Any time we can get another team to turn the ball over that many times, we try to capitalize on it. I think we did tonight.”
The `Canes came in averaging 10.5 turnovers per game.
“Both teams shot well from the field,” said Miami head coach Jim Larranaga, a former UVA assistant. “Both teams shot well from the foul line. We shot pretty well from [3-point range]. But the turnovers were the difference.”
Every Miami mistake delighted the UVA fans who dominated the crowd of 20,719. For the second straight night, Virginia’s players, had they closed their eyes, might have thought they were back in John Paul Jones Arena.
“We’ve had an awesome fan base that’s given us great support and great momentum during these games,” Brogdon said.
Virginia fans were in full voice for UNC’s visit to JPJ last month, and they witnessed a magnificent performance from the 6-5 Brogdon, who totaled 26 points, six rebounds, three assists, two steals and one blocked shot.
North Carolina, one of the ACC’s blue bloods, will try to limit Brogdon’s effectiveness Saturday night. The Heels are seeking their first ACC tournament title since 2008, and their strategy is no secret.
They want to run at every opportunity, and when their shots miss the mark, the Heels will try to contest every rebound. Led by 6-10 senior Brice Johnson, a first-team All-ACC selection, Carolina has grabbed 472 offensive rebounds this season.
“Transition defense and defensive rebounding are the two biggest things that we have to worry about playing a North Carolina team,” Gill said, “because they do play such a fast-paced game. And when they do play at such a fast pace, they have an opportunity to rebound a lot, especially with those big guys in the middle, so we have to be ready for that.”
The Tar Heels “have so many strengths,” Shayok said. “We just have to try to limit them on the boards, keep them out of the paint, and just play a possession at a time and try to outlast them.”
Perrantes said: “It will be the clash of the different styles, but we’ll be ready for [the final].”