March 11, 2018
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — On a court strewn with blue and orange confetti, the University of Virginia men’s basketball family, past and present, came together in a joyous throng at Barclays Center late Saturday night.
There was UVA center Jack Salt talking to former players Evan Nolte and Will Sherrill. There were Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell embracing their former coaches. There was Justin Anderson being Justin Anderson, smiling from ear to ear and exchanging hugs and handshakes in the celebration that followed No. 1 seed UVA’s 71-63 victory over North Carolina in the ACC championship game.
Others on the floor included Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, and its new athletics director, Carla Williams, plus the wives and children of the Cavaliers’ coaches. In the stands, thousands of UVA fans stood and sang the Good Old Song and then cheered the team as it cut down the net at one end of the court, head coach Tony Bennett snipping the final strand.
“This is the UVA family in a nutshell,” said Harris, who plays at Barclays Center for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. “This is what the program’s all about.”
The scene won’t soon be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
“This is unbelievable,” Harris said. “I don’t want to say it’s a better feeling than when we won it [in 2014], but I’m so happy for the players, coaches, everybody. To have this happen, to have the year that they’ve had, I’m so happy for them, and I can’t wait for the [NCAA] tournament.”
Nearly 40 years passed between UVA’s first ACC tournament title (1976) and its second (2014). The third came more quickly.
After running away with the ACC regular-season title, the Cavaliers (31-2) remained dominant in Brooklyn. Virginia defeated No. 9 seed Louisville, No. 4 seed Clemson and, finally, No. 6 seed North Carolina to capture the conference tournament.
“I think it speaks to this group and how tough we are,” said guard Devon Hall, a fifth-year senior who made the All-ACC second team and the ACC’s all-defensive team.
“We’ve been battling all season, so to be able to grab this [tournament title], I think it’s a special, special moment for us.”
What sets this team apart, Bennett said, is the players’ togetherness. “They’re so unified. They’re so unselfish.”
They’re also talented. Not only did the Cavaliers end a string of seven consecutive ACC tourney losses to UNC, which ousted them in the 2015 semifinals and the 2016 championship game, they set a school record for victories in a season.
“Thirty-one wins is a lot,” said redshirt freshman forward De’Andre Hunter, “and hopefully we can keep getting more.”
What makes the Wahoos’ feats more impressive, of course, is that this team began the season unranked and picked to finish sixth in the ACC. UVA is now a consensus No. 1 in The Associated Press poll.
“It just speaks to how bought-in everybody is, from the players [and coaches], all the way down the line,” sophomore guard Ty Jerome said. “Everyone’s bought in, and everyone believes in their role.”
That’s been a trademark of Bennett’s program in his nine seasons as Virginia’s head coach, as his former players will attest. Watching the title game from behind the UVA bench were such alumni as Harris, Anderson, Nolte, Sherrill, Mitchell, Sammy Zeglinski and Doug Browman.
“Those are the guys that have made it possible for us to be where we are today,” said Salt, a redshirt junior from New Zealand. “It’s so awesome seeing them. Those guys paved the way.”
“Family” gets thrown around often in team sports, but that defines the program Bennett has built in his nine seasons as Virginia’s head coach.
“You feel love from everyone who’s been here,” Salt said, “guys that have been here before, guys that are here now. It’s a community, and Coach stresses that. It’s bigger than basketball. These are relationships you build throughout your four to five years here, and they last a lifetime.”
Last summer, Anderson recalled, several alumni had an opportunity to hang out with current players at Bennett’s home in Charlottesville.
“We just talked about what it means to be here and what this program represents,” said Anderson, a third-year swingman with the Philadelphia 76ers, “and to see these guys carry it out, it’s a surreal feeling.”
This has been a magical season for the ‘Hoos, and there are more chapters to be written. When the NCAA tournament field is announced Sunday night, UVA is a virtual lock to be the No. 1 overall seed.
“We’re battle-tested,” Jerome said, “on the road, neutral sites, we play in a great league. So we’re battle-tested going into March, and that’s what you want to be.”
Four Cavaliers scored in double figures against UNC: sophomore guard Kyle Guy (16 points), Hall (15), Jerome (12), and Hunter (10), who hit 6 of 8 free throws in the final minute to seal the victory.
“The feeling right now is amazing,” Hunter said.
The 6-7 Hunter, playing with both wrists injured, still corralled four rebounds. The last came with five seconds left, after which he triumphantly dribbled out the clock.
“I was going to launch [the ball] in the stands, but I felt like that would be too much,” Hunter said, smiling.
The Cavaliers, who defeated the Tar Heels 61-49 on Jan. 6 at John Paul Jones Arena, led for the final 28 minutes and 49 seconds of the rematch. In the second half, UNC ran off seven straight points to cut its deficit to two, but the ‘Hoos answered with a 10-3 run during which Guy, the tournament MVP, had three field goals.
“They’re really good,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “We felt like we had to play really, really well, and I don’t think we did that.”
The Tar Heels, who came in averaging 82.5 points, were playing for the fourth time in four days. They shot 40.8 percent from the floor. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, hit 9 of 17 shots from 3-point range. Hall had three treys, and Guy, Jerome and reserve guard Nigel Johnson (eight points) made two apiece.
UNC scored only two fast-break points and turned the ball over nine times against the nation’s No. 1 defense. Virginia had four turnovers.
The Cavaliers are “really tough-minded,” Williams said. “They’re really intelligent. They realize who they are, and they play to their strengths and stay away from their weaknesses, and as a coach, you have to admire that.”
Of UVA’s current players, only Hall was also on the 2013-14 team. That makes him the first player in program history to earn two ACC tournament championship rings.
“That’s awesome,” Hall said when apprised of that distinction. “It feels great.”
On one side of the postgame celebration stood UVA assistant coach Brad Soderberg, who played for Bennett’s father, Dick, at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Soderberg, who’s in his third season at UVA, has known the younger Bennett for nearly 40 years.
“I’ve made up my mind,” Soderberg said. “I think he’s a pretty good coach.”
Then he smiled.
THEY SAID IT: This marked the second time that UVA has swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles. The Cavaliers also did so in 2013-14. Among the postgame comments Saturday night:
* Bennett on what his team’s success means for Charlottesville, which was rocked in August by rallies led by white supremacists: “On the back of our jerseys, there’s a hashtag, HoosTogether, and I think a basketball team embodies unity and diversity in a way that’s special. Not uniformity: unity and diversity. And I think it’s the greatest example. And like [UVA players] said, there’s love here. There’s family, there’s issues we’ve got, but it’s a beautiful thing.”
* Johnson, who transferred to UVA last summer after graduating from Rutgers: “I feel like we’re definitely headed where we want to go. We’ve still got one [more] championship to get, so we want to keep working and keep preparing for that one.”
* Hunter, who redshirted in 2016-17, on UVA’s — and his — success this season: “It feels great, and it means a lot to me. It feels like everything I’ve worked for has paid off, so I’m really happy now.”
* UVA senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, the ACC’s defensive player of the year: “We’re a family, and I’m happy I can do it with these guys.”
* Hall on the contingent of former UVA players at the game: “They don’t necessarily know or aren’t close to some of the younger guys, but to have them embracing this culture is amazing.”
* Guy on the team’s latest title: “That is by far and away the most important thing. Seeing these seniors smile and almost be brought to tears because of something we’ve accomplished is a great feeling.”