Flip on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and take note of the basketball highlights. The package of best visuals of the night typically includes high-flying dunks, no-look passes and deep 3-point jumpers.
Virginia basketball isn’t made for “SportsCenter.”
The Cavaliers win in ways that opposing fans view as “ugly” or “bad for basketball.” Virginia faithful see those comments and point up at the John Paul Jones Arena rafters, a new national championship banner looking back at them.
Tuesday night’s game against Notre Dame didn’t generate a thrilling highlight package for the late “SportsCenter,” but the Virginia fans in attendance view basketball beauty differently than most viewers and national columnists.
The Virginia faithful enjoyed every second of UVa’s 50-49 win over Notre Dame. Luckily for them, they received an additional 300 seconds of action, as the race to 50 needed an overtime period.
In that extra period, Virginia (16-7, 8-5 ACC) went 0-of-4 from the field and 3-of-5 from the free-throw line. That was enough to beat the Fighting Irish 3-2 in the additional five minutes.
“Never,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said when asked if he’d ever been in a 3-2 overtime game. “It was amazing.”
Brey laughed, acknowledging that his team, which has reached the 80-point threshold 10 times this season, only scored 49 points in 45 minutes of play.
“But, you know, gotta give them credit, man,” Brey said of Virginia. “They do what they do, and it’s a mental test, too.”
With the two teams combining for one made basket in the overtime, a “golden goal” rule could’ve been applied and the total scoring would’ve nearly remained the same. Virginia made just one shot from the floor in the final 11:45 of the game.
As both teams struggled to score down the stretch, Virginia fans became increasingly excited. The second half featured a Notre Dame shot-clock violation, an 8-0 Jay Huff run and a Virginia win.
For a typical college basketball fan, Tuesday’s game on ESPN2 likely resulted in a quick change of the channel. For Virginia fans, low-scoring games aren’t just appreciated, they’re celebrated.
Tony Bennett reacts to his players taking charges like a man who just won $5,000 on a scratch-off lottery ticket. UVa’s in-game promotional items make defense a top priority. Four stops in a row can result in a buy one, get one free chicken sandwich deal.
At one point, Notre Dame’s John Mooney missed a pair of second-half free throws to give all UVa students free bacon, and it felt like JPJ Arena might start shaking.
Casual fans may have rolled their eyes and bemoaned the lack of points. Virginia fans loaded their hands with foam fingers and screamed late into the night.
The majority of men’s college basketball teams this season play better offense — statistically speaking — than Virginia. The Cavaliers rank among the bottom 100 teams in offensive efficiency. The difference with Virginia and other subpar offensive teams is that it wins despite weak scoring performances.
Virginia is 11-0 this season when holding teams to under 50 points. In Bennett’s tenure, the Cavaliers are 98-2 when holding teams to under 50 points. Virginia owns three wins this season when failing to score 50 points. The Cavaliers have 16 wins, and they’ve yet to score more than 65 points in any of those victories.
“When you play in overtime — and first to 50 wins someone said — every point matters,” Bennett said.
Some may call it boring. Some may call it ugly. One thing is certain — the style works.
After two consecutive seasons earning No. 1 seeds, the Cavaliers find themselves on the bubble this season. With a streak of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances on the line, Virginia has racked up five wins in its last seven games and four wins in its last five games, with the lone loss coming at No. 5 Louisville.
Sports Illustrated columnist Pat Forde might not like it. He, along with most of America, prefers the highlight reel dunks from stars like former Duke sensation Zion Williamson.
It’s hard to blame them. When choosing between a scintillating fast-break dunk and a well-executed defensive rotation, it’s easy to choose the slam. For most, a Williamson dunk beats a Jack Salt screen every day of the week.
Virginia’s style isn’t for everyone. It’s easy to call it ugly. At many times, it is ugly. For Virginia fans, it’s gorgeous. They’ve spent a decade appreciating the game-by-game climb the Cavaliers have taken since Bennett’s arrival.
It resulted in a national championship last season in a tournament that featured players like Williamson.
As Bennett spoke to the media after the Notre Dame win, he tried to explain the final few minutes and the plays needed to win the game. After thinking back to the missed shots and defensive stands and limited points, Bennett finally gave up and laughed.
“I don’t know how to look at it,” he said. “But we’ll take it.”
Tuesday’s win over Notre Dame was anything but an offensive masterpiece. Virginia fans don’t care.
They woke up Wednesday morning happy, eating breakfast before going about their day. For many, their meal included a side of free bacon. That’s anything but ugly.