March 3, 2018

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Senior Day affects players in different ways. As forward Isaiah Wilkins, overcome with emotion after his final game at John Paul Jones Arena, slumped over near midcourt Saturday night, guard Devon Hall took a victory lap of sorts, circling the court and exchanging high-fives with University of Virginia basketball fans.

“No, it wasn’t planned,” Hall, a fifth-year senior from Virginia Beach, told reporters later. “I tried to touch as many people as I could and say thank you for all these memories and this journey I’ve been on, because they’ve been a huge part of me. They’ve meant so much to me, and it’s just been special.”

During a postgame press conference, Wilkins, a senior from the Atlanta area, voiced similar sentiments.

“It’s been a really special time for me here,” he said. “I love all of these guys. It’s just been a great four years and this is a great way to go out. I was really happy with it.”

What would have seemed unimaginable back in November — a regular-season record of 28-2, including a 17-1 mark in ACC play — became reality Saturday at JPJ, where a jubilant crowd of 14,205 saw top-ranked UVA defeat Notre Dame 62-57.

“It means everything,” head coach Tony Bennett said of sending Hall, Wilkins and Nigel Johnson out with a victory. “You always try to play for your seniors.”

The Cavaliers, who came into the season unranked, will be seeded No. 1 in the ACC tournament, which starts Tuesday in Brooklyn, New York. Moreover, Virginia may well be the No. 1 overall seed when the NCAA tournament field is announced next Sunday night.

“We’re a tough group, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other guys,” said Hall, who was magnificent in his final game at JPJ, totaling 17 points, six assists, five rebounds and a steal in 37 minutes.

The Wahoos, who ran away with the ACC regular-season title, did not cut down any nets to celebrate that feat. But they remained on the court Saturday night after the teams exchanged handshakes. Turning in every direction, the players and coaches clapped for the fans who have given the Cavaliers such a formidable home-court advantage during Bennett’s nine seasons as their head coach.

“They’ve been here for us every home game,” sophomore guard Ty Jerome said. “They’ve been amazing, and we just wanted to come out and give thanks one last time for the seniors and the last home game of this year for us.”

There were moist eyes in the stands as the ‘Hoos bid good-bye to their supporters. Emotions ran high before the game, too, during the traditional Senior Day ceremony. After three departing student-managers were recognized — Will Gent, Austin Nelson and Sydney Stokes — the spotlight turned to the three players suiting up for the last time at JPJ: Wilkins, Hall and Johnson, who transferred to UVA last summer after graduating from Rutgers.

Then came a stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, sung by Hall’s godmother, Andra Morris.

He’s not usually one to cry, Hall said, but “I almost let loose there. She’s been special to me. She wanted to sing here, and I wanted her to be able to get that done.”

Less than 48 hours earlier, Virginia had scored five points in the final nine-tenths of a second to stun Louisville 67-66 at the KFC Yum! Center. The ‘Hoos didn’t get back to Charlottesville until around 1 a.m. Friday, so they were battling fatigue Saturday, and they had long since wrapped up their third ACC regular-season title in five years.

Don’t use that as an excuse for an uninspired effort against a talented Notre Dame team desperate to bolster its postseason résumé, Bennett told his players. He challenged them, Bennett said, to put their “stamp on this game to finish this regular season strong in terms of our identity.”

The Cavaliers, of course, had no intention of doing otherwise.

“We wanted to end the [regular] season No. 1 in the country,” Jerome said, “and that was at stake too.”

The Fighting Irish (18-13, 8-10), led by senior forward Bonzie Colson, offered stiff resistance. Virginia led 32-27 at halftime, but Notre Dame rallied to go up 43-39 with 13:06 to play.

Colson, who missed 15 games with a foot injury, returned Wednesday and contributed 12 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes in the Irish’s win over Pitt. Against UVA, he had 18 points and nine rebounds in the first 20 minutes.

“In the first half he was cooking,” Bennett said.

Against the relentless defense of Wilkins, Colson tired in the second half but still finished with 25 points and 15 rebounds, both game highs.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, played most of the game without Kyle Guy, the sophomore guard who’s their leading scorer. Guy injured his left knee with 5:36 left in the first half and headed into the tunnel to be examined by head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba and UVA doctors.

Guy was cleared to return and, wearing a brace on his knee, was in for several short stints in the second half, but he finished scoreless for the first time this season.

With Guy hobbled, his teammates had to carry more of the offensive load, and three Cavaliers scored in double figures: Hall, Jerome (13 points) and redshirt freshman forward De’Andre Hunter (10 points), who hit the game-winning 3-pointer Thursday night at Louisville.

Hunter also grabbed six rebounds against Notre Dame and made 3 of 4 from the line in the final 20 seconds.

“He sort of salted the game away,” Bennett said, “and that was big time.”

Wilkins scored eight points to go with his six rebounds, two assists, two steals and one blocked shot, and 6-9 redshirt sophomore Mamadi Diakite contributed nine points in 19 minutes off the bench.

“You gotta give Virginia credit,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “I thought Hall was fabulous. Any time we put a little game pressure [on] he made a big play, and Tony’s done a fabulous job with this group. They’re really good.”

Notre Dame came in averaging 76.2 points per game and shooting 45.4 percent from the floor. The Irish shot 35.8 percent Saturday against the nation’s No. 1 defense. Senior guard Matt Farrell was 3 for 15 from the floor.

The Cavaliers “really pushed him out,” Brey said. “They had different guys on him. I thought everything was really hard for him offensively, and [other teams] have done that, and when they’ve really taken him away it’s affected our flow. He missed some pretty good ones, but when you play Virginia and you get an open shot in the second half, you’re a little tired because you’ve been chasing all the road blocks [on defense]. You’re chasing Jerome off a road block. So that’s always been a problem when we’ve played these guys: You’re a little tired to rise up and take that shot because you’ve been guarding them.”

With the score 59-57 in the final minute, the Irish had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. But UVA, as it has to so many opponents this season, pressured Notre Dame into a shot-clock violation, bringing the fans at JPJ to their feet once again.

“I think that sends us out the right way,” Hall said.

The ACC went to an 18-game conference schedule in 2012-13. Virginia is the first team to win 17 ACC games in a season.

“We just didn’t give up all year: on the road, in tough environments,” Jerome said. “It was a great, great, great regular season. And we need to carry this momentum forward going into the most important time of the year.”

THEY SAID IT: With the victory, the Cavaliers improved to 11-2 all-time against the Irish. Among the postgame comments from both sides:

* Bennett on UVA’s seniors: “I thought Isaiah and Devon, fittingly, they put their heart out on the floor, and I think they’re going to feel really good, and so should Nigel, about the way they finished their last home game here.”

* Hall on the determination with which he attacked the basket: “I didn’t want to lose the game. I was just trying to be aggressive. I kind of had it going, going to the rim, so I wanted to use my strength and try to get in there and make plays.”

* Hall, with a laugh, on the unforgettable finish to the UVA-Louisville game: “You see it everywhere on ESPN. Every time you turn the TV on. I remember sitting there with my friend watching, and then I change the channel just to try to get away from it, and it comes on again.”

* Bennett on the value of the Cavaliers’ starting big men, Wilkins and redshirt junior Jack Salt: “They screen, they rebound, they occasionally shoot and they get [their teammates] open [on screens], and of course that takes its toll [on defenders]. We wouldn’t be in this spot without those guys.”

* Jerome on UVA’s recent success when driving to the basket: “The one game we took 59 threes, we lost.” That was an exaggeration, but Virginia attempted 38 3-pointers, by far a season high, in its overtime loss to Virginia Tech at JPJ on Feb. 10.

* Brey on his team’s prospects of making the NCAA tournament: “It’s an interesting one. We are probably maybe one of the harder ones to analyze. Now, we have to do some work in Brooklyn to be on the docket, but we’re in there. [NCAA selection committee members] gotta look at us. Our numbers are good, and one thing I’m very happy that the committee saw today is that Bonzie Colson is obviously back. He is back and with him we have a chance, but we need to get going in Brooklyn. I hope we can give them a few more wins so that we’re really debated in that room.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Virginia has a double bye in the ACC tournament. The Cavaliers’ first game will be Thursday at noon against No. 8 seed Florida State or No. 9 seed Louisville in the first quarterfinal at Barclays Center.

“I think the way that we’ve prepared up to this point has been good, from the summer time until now,” Wilkins said. “It’s just time to lock in. You can’t be tight. Play free, but you gotta give a little bit more. At this point of the year, everybody’s playing good ball.”

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