By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Like everyone else associated with the University of Virginia men’s basketball program, they were stunned by what unfolded in the final 10 minutes of the Midwest Region final Sunday night in Chicago. Yet they were determined to recognize the accomplishments of an extraordinary group, and so there they were early Monday morning, standing in the rain outside John Paul Jones Arena.
When the team bus arrived back at JPJ at 1:15 a.m. after its drive in from the airport, scores of fans were waiting to greet Virginia’s players and coaches.
The show of support touched the Cavaliers, whose season had ended about five hours earlier with an excruciating loss at the United Center.
In its first appearance in the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight since 1995, top-seeded Virginia dominated No. 10 seed Syracuse for much of the game Sunday night.
The Wahoos led the Orange by 14 at halftime and, after junior point guard London Perrantes’ sixth 3-pointer of the game, by 15 with 9:30 to play. A victory would have sent the `Hoos to the Final Four for the first time since 1984, and “it was in our grasp,” head coach Tony Bennett said.
But then the unfathomable occurred: Virginia came unglued as Syracuse came alive. With 8:30 left, the Orange still trailed by 13 points, but they closed the game on a 25-6 run to shock UVA 68-62 before a crowd of 20,155.
Afterward, in a somber locker room, Anthony Gill dropped into a chair and looked up at a small group of reporters. He knew uncomfortable questions were coming, and he faced them head on, as he has throughout his career at Virginia.
“I feel like we fully understand that it was our game to win, and we just gave it away,” said Gill, a fifth-year senior who transferred to UVA from South Carolina after the 2011-12 season.
Freshman swingman Malachi Richardson scored 21 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to lead the Orange. Syracuse (23-13) advances to meet another ACC foe, East Region champion North Carolina (32-6), in the NCAA semifinals Saturday night in Houston.
“I’m never been prouder in all my 40 years as coach of a basketball team [than] I am of this team tonight,” Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim said.
For the Orange, who lost 73-65 to Virginia at JPJ on Jan. 24, the rematch brought jubilation. The emotions were different for the Cavaliers, especially for seniors Gill, Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte and Caid Kirven.
Seasons almost always end abruptly, but “especially when it happens like that,” said Tobey, a 7-0 center who had 10 points, four rebounds and two blocked shots in 18 minutes off the bench.
“Having such a big lead, and then kind of going through a scoring drought as well as not being able to get stops, it’s tough.”
In the locker room, Bennett offered perspective to his team. The Cavaliers finished the season with a 29-8 record, giving them a program-record 89 victories over a three-year span.
Bennett borrowed lyrics from a hymn based on a psalm and told his players that “weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. We will have some tough nights, because you’re so close you could taste it, but absolutely joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia Basketball.
“I’m just so thankful to have coached them, and I know every coach says that at this time, but it is not lip service. It’s real.”
The loss stings, and reviewing the videotape of the game may be painful for him, Bennett said, but he’s proud to have coached such a distinguished group of seniors.
As sophomores in 2013-14, they helped Virginia win the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976. UVA was awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney that season and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 19 years.
As juniors in 2014-15, they led Virginia to a second-straight ACC regular-season title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tourney.
This season brought continued success. The `Hoos, who were undefeated at JPJ, advanced to the ACC tournament’s title game, where they fell to UNC, and then defeated Hampton, Butler and Iowa State in the NCAAs.
Individually, Brogdon was named ACC player of the year and ACC defensive player of the year and earned All-America honors.
This is Brogdon’s fifth year at the University — he redshirted in 2012-13 while recovering from foot surgery — and he’ll leave in May with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. On the court, the 6-5 guard from Atlanta scored 1,809 career points, which ranks ninth all-time at UVA.
Brogdon struggled from the floor against Syracuse, making only 2 of 14 shots, and he’s disappointed to have fallen short of the Final Four. But he’s not despondent.
“You start to remember all the good times you’ve had,” Brogdon said at the postgame press conference, “and you start to realize how special these guys sitting next to you and on the court with you [are], how much they mean to you, how much your coaches mean to you, how much you’ve learned from them, and just how much you’ve enjoyed your experience and your college career.”
Gill, sitting at the dais with Brogdon, Tobey and Bennett, agreed.
To lose after “being so close to something that you wanted for so long, I would say that’s the biggest shock,” Gill said. “We had a big lead, and then we let it go. So I guess there is a lot of shock in that. But like Malcolm said, we’ve done so many great things here, and we’re not going to [hang] our head over this one loss that we had. Of course, you want to go further because it’s just right there, but we’ve done so much great for this university, and this university has done so many great things for us as well.”
Two nights after rallying late to defeat 11th-seeded Gonzaga, the Orange pulled off another improbable comeback to beat Virginia for the first time since joining the ACC.
“They’re a resilient team,” Bennett said. “They just kept battling.”
The game turned when Syracuse started pressing full-court midway through the second half. Against Iowa State, the Cavaliers had carved up such pressure late, scoring repeatedly on dunks and layups, but they could not repeat that formula against the Orange.
Twice the `Hoos broke the press for layups by redshirt sophomore guards Darius Thompson (nine points) and Devon Hall, but they also turned the ball over four times, mistakes that energized Syracuse and its legion of fans at the United Center. The Orange finished with 15 points off turnovers.
“We weren’t as poised as we needed to be,” Gill said.
Defensive breakdowns plagued Virginia in the second half too. For the game’s first 28 minutes, freshman Tyler Lydon was the only Syracuse player to make a 3-pointer. But Richardson heated up, hitting three treys in the final 11:43, and Syracuse came up with several crucial offensive rebounds late.
Richardson’s second 3-pointer pulled the Orange to 58-52 with 7:10 left. Lydon followed with his third trey, and suddenly it was a three-point game. Fifth-year senior guard Michael Gbinije’s layup made it 58-57, and then Richardson scored on a drive to put the Orange up 59-58, their first lead since 8-5.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, could get nothing to fall against Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone. After Hall’s layup against the Orange’s press made it 58-49 with 7:33 left, Virginia did not score again until Gill’s basket at the 1:48 mark. By then, the Orange had surged ahead and seized control of the game.
“We didn’t make plays,” said Perrantes, who led Virginia with 18 points, “and they made a lot of them.”
After missing his first two 3-point attempts Sunday night, Perrantes hit his next five to help Virginia take a 35-21 lead into halftime. The Orange adjusted their defense accordingly, and Perrantes took only four shots in the second half.
“They shaded him,” Bennett said. The Cavaliers tried to attack Syracuse in other ways, “but it’s a good zone,” Bennett said. “It’s a good defense.”
With Syracuse leading 64-58, Hall missed the front end of a one-and-one with 2:33 remaining, and 45 seconds ticked off the clock before Gill’s layup made it a four-point game. Two free throws by Brogdon made it 64-62 with 26.9 seconds left, and then Gbinije went 1 for 2 from the line.
Given a reprieve, Virginia turned to Brogdon, who had matched his career high with seven assists. He penetrated into the middle of Syracuse’s zone and then passed out to Hall, who was open beyond the 3-point line on the left wing.
“It was a heck of a look,” Hall said. “I just missed it.”
The Orange went 3 for 4 from the line in the last nine seconds to seal the victory, and the Cavaliers walked off the court for the final time in 2015-16.
“Even if the seniors weren’t going, it would still be tough,” Perrantes said. “We wish we could have gotten it for them, but stuff happens.”
The seniors will scatter in May after graduation, but the stamp they put on the Cavaliers’ program will remain long after they leave Charlottesville.
“It’s hard to think about right now, but I think we’ll feel it down the road,” Nolte said. “We came here four years ago — Malcolm, five — and I think we’ve all bought in in a way that makes a program and a team successful. I think a lot of people respect that and respect how we go about our lives outside of basketball.”