Here in the land that college basketball forgot, Virginia fans have sat with their palms up, saying, “What about us?”
In perhaps the greatest setting in Charlottesville since the Days of Ralph, the saviors of Cavalier basketball carved their names into Wahoo lore with a convincing exclamation point: No. 12 Virginia 75, No. 4 Syracuse 56.
The Cavaliers’ ownership of crunch time resurfaced yet again with a dominating 20-5 run that led to bedlam in John Paul Jones Arena and a celebratory stampede of the court. It wasn’t so much about beating Syracuse as much as claiming the outright regular season ACC title for the first time since 1981.
Syracuse, which had perched atop the college basketball rankings for much of the season, saw its chances of pulling off a win sail off the tracks for good when the game was deadlocked at 42-all with 11:20 to play. Virginia outscored the Orange 20-5 over the next eight minutes with the two players Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim feared the most — Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris — leading the charge.
Brogdon scored eight points during that stretch and Harris, who had been dogged by the Orange defense most the game, awoke with one of UVa’s three huge 3-pointers to blow the contest open.
When the dust had cleared, Virginia had landed a roundhouse that Syracuse had no hopes of recovering from with a 62-47 advantage. With the win, the Cavaliers locked up the top seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament in Greensboro.
The sold out crowd of 14,593, including celebrities like former Redskins receiver Art Monk, PGA golfer Steve Stricker, and the two men most responsible for the arena, major donor Paul Tudor Jones and father John Paul “Jack” Jones, looking on, watched the Cavaliers win their 18th consecutive ACC home game over the past two years.
“I have thought for a couple weeks that they have been by far the best team [in the ACC],” Boeheim said about Virginia after the beatdown. “This is the first game all year that we have been out of the game in the last five minutes.”
Syracuse’s troubles began long before that.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who uncharacteristically brought his team back to the court to cut down the nets, had challenged his team’s defensive mentality at halftime. The Cavaliers got the message.
It was like one of those old John Wayne westerns when the bad guys ride into town and head to the saloon with the sheriff saying, “Fellas, check your guns at the door.”
For the last 13:54 of the game, UVa’s defense intensified, with Syracuse connecting on a mere 4-of-22 field goal attempts, including Oh-for-10 from beyond the arc.
Perhaps the defensive inspiration came from afar the night before when Bennett’s father, former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett (creator of the Pack-line defense) called his son and said to give the Cavaliers a message: “I really want to see a good man-to-man defense beat a really good zone defense.”
That’s exactly what happened.
While Syracuse was struggling with its shooting accuracy against a smothering Wahoo defense, the Cavaliers’ offense ignited in a big way. Virginia had focused its offensive efforts inside the paint the first half, but in the second half, Bennett’s offense scored 24 points without a touch in the paint against the famous Orange zone and had bulls-eye accuracy from the Bonusphere, connecting on 7-of-11 3-pointers, a staggering 63.6 percent.
Boeheim said that his team’s defense slipped after the break, giving UVa’s shooters too much room and that the Cavaliers were good enough to take advantage.
After all the celebrating (at least inside JPJ) came to an end, Bennett wore a smile wide enough to stretch to dad’s house in Wisconsin.
“The last time I heard it that loud, I was at the Taylor Swift concert,” Bennett chuckled. “I remember I sat there and there were 14,000 teenage girls screaming, and I was like, ‘I wonder if we can get it like this for a game.’ I’m telling you something, it either rivaled or surpassed it.”
Bennett wouldn’t have thought about cutting down the nets but because it had never happened at JPJ and hadn’t happened at University Hall in decades, he felt it apropos to snip ‘em to thank the Wahoo faithful that had made the arena a true home-court advantage.
Boeheim said it wasn’t the building that made JPJ such a tough place to play.
“That’s all mythology,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “The only thing that makes it difficult is their players. You’ve got to have the players and they’ve got really good players and a really good coach.”
Back in the arena player meeting room where players are interviewed postgame, seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell were both excited and emotionally drained. They weren’t exactly speechless but had a difficult time explaining exactly what this win meant to them.
Harris said weeks ago that when he first came to Virginia from the West Coast that he knew all about the glorious days of Ralph Sampson but wanted to learn the rest of the history about Wahoo basketball. After his research, his goal was to help restore the program to prominence.
“It’s unbelievable,” Harris said afterward. “I can’t even describe this feeling right now. One of the main reasons I came here — and I know that Akil came here — was to be the foundation for Coach Bennett’s program and turning this thing around back to what it used to be.
“For us to go out this way with an ACC crown is unreal,” Harris continued. “I can’t describe it. But at the same time, we still have a lot of basketball left. This is exciting and I can’t wait for the postseason, but I also can’t wait for Maryland [UVa’s final regular season game and the last-ever meeting with the Terps as an ACC opponent a week from today at College Park]."
“This is a team full of guys that live for the big game,” Mitchell said.
Saturday was big in the land that college basketball forgot, but bigger challenges lie ahead.
For now, Wahoo Nation is content to just savor this deed like a long sip of Virginia Gentleman. Victory tastes good.