By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RALEIGH, N.C. — At 10:15 p.m., they crowded together in the back of the team bus, posing for a photo that @UVAMensHoops posted on Twitter a few minutes later.
The smiles on the faces of the University of Virginia players told the story Saturday night. After outlasting Butler 77-69 in a second-round game, the Cavaliers are headed to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen for the second time in three seasons.
In 2013-14, the Wahoos traveled to New York City, where they lost to Michigan State in a fiercely contested game at Madison Square Garden.
Their destination this time is Chicago. In a Midwest Region semifinal, top-seeded Virginia (28-7) will face Iowa State (23-11) on Friday night at a time to be determined.
The fourth-seeded Cyclones rolled to a 78-61 victory over 12th-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday. Iowa State figures to be a formidable opponent in Chicago, but the Cavaliers will draw confidence from their gritty effort against Butler.
“I think when you’re tested and you come out with a win, it just fortifies you and validates the way you play,” assistant coach Brad Soderberg said outside Virginia’s locker room at PNC Arena. “We proved again that we can play in a tough environment and come out with a W.”
The Cavaliers’ latest victory did not come easily. They trailed by two at halftime and by five with 15:45 to play before rallying.
UVA head coach Tony Bennett had always expected a hard-fought game. The Bulldogs were too disciplined, too well-coached to give the game away, Bennett knew. And so he challenged his players.
“You will have to go get it,” Bennett said. “You will have to beat them … They don’t beat themselves.”
Virginia delivered a ruthlessly efficient offensive performance in the second half, making 19 of 26 shots from the floor, including 12 of its first 13, and scoring 54 points. The `Hoos averaged 1.5 points per possession in the final 20 minutes.
On a night when they made only 2 of 10 shots from 3-point range, the Cavaliers destroyed Butler in the lane and around the basket in the second half.
“I thought they were exceptional, particularly in the second half, and it’s a credit to them,” Butler head coach Chris Holtmann said.
After falling in the round of 32 last season, the `Hoos had every reason to savor their victory over the Bulldogs (22-11).
“We came in a little tougher in this game,” Virginia big man Anthony Gill said. “We wanted it a little bit more. Not saying we didn’t want it last year around this time, [but] this year we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We knew we had to go out there and attack from the beginning and fight throughout the whole game, and that’s what we did.”
Four Cavaliers scored in double figures: fifth-year seniors Malcolm Brogdon (22 points) and Gill (19), sophomore Marial Shayok (12), and senior Mike Tobey (10), who was 5 for 5 from the floor in only nine minutes.
“We played a really tough team tonight, but we were really tough,” said Brogdon, an All-American guard. “So it was a battle of wills, and I think we imposed our will a little bit more towards the end.”
As impressive as UVA’s offense in the second half was Brogdon’s lock-down defense on Butler big man Andrew Chrabascz.
With 16:33 to play, Chrabascz, a 6-7, 235-pound junior, had 24 points, six shy of his career high, after completing a three-point play that gave the Bulldogs a 37-34 lead. Virginina’s post players were struggling to stay with Chrabascz, and so Bennett turned to Brogdon, the ACC defensive player of the year.
Brogdon said he wanted to see if he could disrupt Chrabascz “and frustrate him a little bit.”
At 6-5, 215 pounds, Brogdon is smaller than Chrabascz, but he had been lobbying for the assignment nonetheless. No surprise there. This is a player who, during the regular season, defended such stars as Grayson Allen, Brandon Ingram and Anthony “Cat” Barber with success.
“Malcolm did say to me, “Coach, let me take him,’ ” Bennett told reporters after the game.
The move paid huge dividends for the Cavaliers, who used a four-guard lineup for most of the second half. Brogdon helped Virginia limit Chrabascz to one point in the final 16:32.
“He’s a terrific defender,” Holtmann said. “He’s smart, he’s physical, he’s strong. He doesn’t give you angles or bail you out.”
On the perimeter, guards London Perrantes, Devon Hall and Shayok defended with equal vigor, and Virginia made enough stops to secure a hard-earned victory. The Bulldogs scored only one point in the final 69 seconds. And now, in its seventh season under Bennett, UVA is one victory from its first appearance in the Elite Eight since 1995.
To be headed to Chicago, Gill said, is “great, not only for us as seniors, but for this program in general. To have everybody on this team work so hard, and Coach Bennett put us in a position to be able to be successful in the way that we play, I think it speaks volume for our program. It’s something that we can always remember, that we were that team that went to two Sweet Sixteens, and hopefully we can go further than that, Lord willing.”
Another trip to the round of 16 seemed anything but certain for Virginia at halftime Saturday night. The Cavaliers shot only 38.5 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes — they were 1 for 5 from beyond the arc — and trailed 25-23 at the break.
Then they started attacking the basket. Virginia’s first seven possessions of the second half yielded 13 points, from a Gill jump hook, a Hall layup, an Isaiah Wilkins layup, two Gill free throws, one Perrantes free throw, a Tobey dunk, and a Gill slam.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well from outside,” Perrantes said, “so we had to exploit the inside. A.G. played well, and then we also just got into the paint and finished some layups.”
Tobey said: “I think it was a big key for us, just to get the ball inside, especially to A.G. And then that opened up Malcolm’s drives, and then Marial hit some big shots as well.”
In a critical situation, the 6-5 Shayok sparkled. He scored 10 points in the second half Saturday, repeatedly breaking down his defender in one-on-one situations.
“I just wanted to bring some energy,” Shayok said.
The coaching staff’s decision to play four guards together Saturday night meant a larger role for Shayok and “put him in a position where he was defended by a little bit bigger guy,” Soderberg said.
“I don’t think anything was specifically said to him to get him going. I give him credit, though. He confidently made some shots. He was feeling it, and he did a great job. I thought his offensive lift was huge. He’s a confident offensive player, and when he’s making shots, he can get on a roll, and he did tonight.”
Shayok, who played well for Virginia in the ACC tournament, built on those performances in Raleigh. In UVA’s first-round rout of No. 16 seed Hampton, Shayok contributed 10 points in 12 minutes Thursday afternoon.
“In our offense, we don’t have a ton of set calls for him,” Bennett said. “Since the ACC tournament, at different times he’s been able to manufacture his own shot. In tournament games, you have to make plays offensively and defensively.”
In the final seconds Saturday night, the orange-clad fans at PNC Arena raised a chant heard often at John Paul Jones Arena: “U-V-A! U-V-A! U-V-A!”
Two years ago, in the same arena, Virginia defeated Memphis to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995.
The box score from that game shows such names as Brogdon, Gill, Tobey, Perrantes and Evan Nolte, all still in important roles for the Cavaliers. But this Virginia team, Perrantes believes, is better prepared for what awaits it on the tournament’s second weekend.
“We have more experience,” Perrantes said, “and we definitely have a more versatile team this year, offensively and defensively. I think that will be huge.”
Bennett’s respect for Butler was evident in his postgame remarks Saturday night, and Holtmann was equally complimentary. Near the end of his press conference, the Bulldogs’ coach was asked to assess the Cavaliers’ chances in this NCAA tourney.
“They’re really physical and tough,” Holtmann said. “They make it difficult for you to score. They’re smart and intelligent in how they play.
“I’m not certainly going to put any more undue pressure on Tony or Virginia than is already there. They’ve got the No. 1 seed by their name. But I think they’re poised to have a very good tournament, and we have a great appreciation for how they play.”