GREENSBORO, N.C. — In the midst of the falling confetti, the chants of “UVa, UVa, UVa,” and congratulatory high-fives, Virginia’s Justin Anderson was just as poised during the ACC Championship trophy presentation as he was on the court against Duke on Sunday afternoon.
When ACC commissioner John Swofford handed the coveted trophy to Anderson, the UVa sophomore quickly made sure that Cavalier seniors Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell and Thomas Rogers got their hands on the prize. It was their day.
Harris, who perhaps delivered the death knell to Duke with a wide-open 3-pointer at the two-minute mark, became the first Virginia player to win the Everett Case Award, symbolic of the tournament’s MVP, since Wally Walker led the Cavaliers to their only other championship in 1976.
Mitchell, perhaps the most underrated defensive whiz in America, left everything on the court as he wore out Blue Devils’ superstar Jabari Parker. Rogers, a walk-on who earned a scholarship, contributed in getting his fellow teammates ready for this glorious moment in Wahoo history.
“This is a dream come true,” Mitchell said after one of his best performances of his career, helping the Cavaliers end 38 years of frustration in this storied event. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet, but we’ve solidified ourselves in the history of UVa.”
While the senior from Charlotte put up seven points and 15 rebounds, and two blocks, his major work was defending Parker. The Duke freshman, perhaps bound for the pros after one season, put up 23 points, but on a 9-for-24 shooting performance.
“For [Parker] to get 23, I gave him my everything,” Mitchell said. “He just finds ways to score.”
In a classic battle for the ACC crown, Parker threatened to steal Virginia’s dream with a scoring outburst midway through the second half. With the Cavaliers and Blue Devils leapfrogging one another for the lead most of the half, Parker blitzed UVa with a seven-point barrage, a coast-to-coast Jordanesque slam dunk, a 3-pointer and a regular bucket for a 47-46 Duke lead with 8:36 to play.
Parker scored only once more after that and was shut out with six-and-a-half minutes to go.
Meanwhile, Mitchell, Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill (who received Virginia’s game ball, 12 points, 7 rebounds), held off the Devils with their offense for a 72-63 victory.
It was a special moment for UVa coach Tony Bennett and the team’s seniors. Bennett’s goal was to reverse the fortunes of Cavalier basketball, which had become totally irrelevant in the college hoops landscape.
When the confetti cleared, Bennett and his program earned the highest praise possible from the man who has won more games than anyone in major college basketball history, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Asked about Virginia’s teamwork, unselfishness, defense, Coach K didn’t hesitate to offer an opinion.
“I see all those things,” the Duke coach said. “I admire them. I think they’re a helluva basketball team. They’ve had a great season, great kids, unselfish. They’re one of the best teams in the country. They’ve done that in a consistent manner. They’ve been healthy, too, so they haven’t had bumps in the road and so they keep getting a little bit better all the time.”
While Virginia won its first outright ACC regular season title since 1981-82, the Cavaliers heard all the outside criticism. They hadn’t played the toughest schedule in the conference, having faced Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse only once each.
Mitchell & Co. said they used that criticism as motivation to win the tournament and prove a point. They did it with an exclamation mark, beating three quality opponents in three days, Florida State, Pittsburgh, then Duke.
With that championship trifecta, Virginia actually went 19-2 against ACC competition while raising its overall record to 28-6, the program’s best mark since the 1982-83 team posted 29 wins.
Virginia earned this title. Duke, a familiar figure in ACC title games during the Krzyzewski era, wasn’t giving the Cavaliers anything. This was basketball warfare, one where every possession counted.
The Virginia – Duke championship game was going to be the kind of “blue collar knuckle buster” that Bennett’s father, legendary ex-coach Dick Bennett, had predicted for the UVa-Pitt semifinal. Take that knuckle buster and raise it a few notches and it had all the intensity one would expect from an ACC title game.
Bennett got more satisfaction out of the way his team won this title than from winning the title itself.
“I told these guys in the locker room, to me, the true joy is in how they played when the ball was tipped between the lines, how hard they play, how well they played,” Bennett said. “Not perfect, but how they defended, how they moved the ball and tried to outlast through the game.”
The Cavaliers only let down their guard for an eight-minute stretch without a field goal in the first half, but otherwise, stood jaw-to-jaw with the Blue Devils. This was truly March Madness in a raucous atmosphere before 21,533 fans, enough of them festooned in orange and blue to make Bennett remark, “Is this JPJ [UVa’s home arena]?”
There was immense pressure on Bennett to deliver UVa’s first title since 1976, a landmark in Wahoo basketball history. The Cavaliers have had few chances to hoist the trophy, the last coming in 1994. In fact, Virginia’s ACC Tournament history has been futile since then, having never made it to a Saturday semifinal game since 1995.
Even Walker, nicknamed “Wonderful Wally,” after winning MVP honors in leading the Cavaliers to the ’76 crown, texted Bennett before this tournament began and noted: “We need some company,” in reference to the lone championship banner hanging in the rafters of John Paul Jones Arena.
The pressure began in Friday’s quarterfinals but if the Cavaliers felt any, it never showed. They played the same brand of basketball that made them regular season champs with a 16-2 mark. Even when they left their hotel for the bus ride to the Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday morning, they took everything in stride.
“All we could see was orange when we drove over here,” said Harris, who scored 15 points. “It’s special to share it with the fans. They deserve it. They city of Charlottesville deserves an ACC Tournament title. They’ve been extremely loyal and very supportive ever since I’ve gotten to the school.”
Harris and Brogdon were first-team, all-tournament. Brogdon was a major factor in the game, tying Duke’s Parker for scoring honors with 23 points. In fact, after the last tie at 53-all with 6:06 to play, Brogdon scored 10 points down the home stretch, including going 6-for-8 at the free throw line when the Blue Devils were desperately trying to hang within striking distance.
“Brogdon’s a first-team, all-league player,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s steady, kind of unflappable and so strong mentally and physically. He and Harris … they’re two men. Those two and Mitchell give you three of the better players in the country all on one team.”
A championship team.
A long time coming.
Wonderful Wally won’t be lonely any more.