RALEIGH, N.C. — Tony Bennett finished his interview with TNT’s Rachel Nichols at mid-court and headed to the tunnel, pausing only to give a humble wave to a sea of orange and blue-clad fans. Behind him, a Virginia cheerleader went airborne to bump shoulders with Cavman.
It was shortly after 11 p.m. on Sunday, March 23, and UVa was the last ACC team standing in the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 1-seeded Cavaliers blitzed eighth-seeded Memphis, 78-60, to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995.
Who’s not joining them? Duke. North Carolina. Syracuse. N.C. State. Pittsburgh.
A league deemed with potential to be “the greatest conference in the history of basketball” in the preseason by legendary Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski is three weeks into March and its traditional powers are eliminated.
The Wahoos and Tar Heels entered the day as the ACC’s last hope among the six teams that made it to the Big Dance.
An hour before the Cavs’ tip with the Tigers, UNC fell in dramatic fashion to Iowa State in the other half of the East Regional.
The ‘Hoos seemed happy to carry the flag.
Behind five double-digit scorers and more tenacious defense, Virginia led by as many as 27 on its way to an absolute rout.
“It’s an honor,” said sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 10 points and dished out four assists. “We have a really great conference, a lot of really good teams. But to be the last ones standing is huge.”
Because of Virginia, the ACC avoided not having a team in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1979.
“I think the tournament is so much about matchups, it really is,” Bennett said. “Our league was strong. Everybody can make their statements, but I’m just thankful we’re standing. I don’t know what it means about us. All I know is we’re playing and I’m thankful for that. ... I wish more ACC teams were in it, but the league is better than one team in the Sweet 16, and I know that’s probably coming from a guy up there.
“It’s good and I promise you, next year’s going to be even better.”
The Cavaliers (30-6) now get the Big Ten’s Michigan State (28-8), a trendy Final Four pick by national pundits.
“We’re going to try to represent well,” Brogdon said.
Tobey from the tip — again
With 17:31 remaining in the first half, Mike Tobey pulled up from 15 feet and showed off the feathery soft touch unique to his 6-foot-11 frame.
The made jumper gave Virginia its first two points of the night.
Dating back to the ACC title game against Duke, Tobey has now scored the Cavaliers’ first points in three straight games.
The sophomore ended the first half with six points and four rebounds. Contrary to Friday, he started the second half. Tobey finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
His last make was a 3-pointer with 3:43 remaining from straight-on that threatened to take the roof off PNC Arena.
It was Tobey’s first triple of the season and only fourth of his career.
“I knew that was money right from the start,” Tobey joked.
Virginia went 3-0 this season at PNC Arena, winning games by an average score of 75-55.
Evan Almighty Part II
Evan Nolte, not much of a factor during Virginia’s run to the ACC title, has become UVa’s secret weapon in the NCAA Tournament.
The sophomore followed his eight-point spark against Coastal Carolina with six points against Memphis, including a rim-rocking baseline dunk late in the second half.
“Ev’s got that sneaky bounce,” Tobey said. “That’s what we call it.”
The very pro-UVa crowd of 18,712 included football players Jake McGee and Alec Vozenilek.
Vozenilek, the Cavaliers’ punter, is the older brother of Rob Vozenilek, a walk-on guard.
McGee, Virginia’s star tight end, is a former hoops standout in his own right, earning hardwood offers out of Collegiate School in Richmond.
“I’d say I’m the best [basketball player] on the team,” McGee said Tuesday.
In support of London
Russell White, the boys basketball coach for Crespi Carmelite in Los Angeles, made the 2,500-mile journey to PNC Arena to show support for his former stud point guard, London Perrantes.
White was in attendance Friday when Perrantes scored 12 points and dished out six assists as the Wahoos escaped 16 seed Coastal Carolina, 70-59.
He was in the building Sunday when the 6-2, 189-pounder scored eight points and had a pair of assists.
Perrantes has yet to commit a turnover in the NCAA Tournament.
Before Friday’s tip, Crespi Carmelite’s Facebook page sent out a video message wishing good luck to Perrantes.