CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia coach Tony Bennett writes the same acronym on the locker room whiteboard before every game.
Bennett shortened a phrase from the Bible verse I Corinthians 9:24.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Therefore I urge you, run in such a way as to win.
“Of course, it’s talking about a different kind of prize in the scripture,” said Bennett, who added that he used the same phrase during one of his seasons at Washington State. “But it’s about focusing. You’re never going to win unless you do it in such a way.”
Virginia’s 79-74 win over North Carolina on Saturday pulled the Cavaliers within a game of the Tar Heels and Miami, who are tied atop the ACC standings. But after winning the league’s past two regular-season crowns, Virginia is after a different kind of prize. And this team is capable of obtaining it.
The Cavaliers mastered regular-season greatness the past two seasons. But that’s been followed by the lows of early NCAA tournament eliminations, well before getting to taste the final weekend.
In 2014, it was a loss as a No. 1 seed to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Last season, the Cavaliers lost as a No. 2 seed again to the Spartans, who went on to reach the Final Four as a No. 7 seed.
Those are the experiences that might help Virginia have a breakthrough in March. Competing for another ACC banner is nice and all, but this team is capable of achieving a bigger prize.
“I definitely think we’re better equipped, we have a more mature, experienced team,” said Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon, who scored a game-high 26 points. “We have a team that’s evolved and learned from past experiences having a great regular season, and then relaxing in the postseason and not being as successful as we should have been.”
Virginia has a veteran squad of players who remember the disappointments well. It has only two freshmen (Jack Salt, Jarred Reuter) in its rotation and both average about five minutes a game. This is a team in which upperclassmen like senior forward Anthony Gill and junior guard London Perrantes are going to dictate its fate.
Brogdon is reason No. 1 why the Cavaliers are again positioning themselves for a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. Saturday represented the 15th time he has scored 20 or more points in a game this season. He’s also a lock for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award, with his ability to take away an opponent’s first option.
Need any proof? Check Virginia’s 63-62 loss at Duke on Feb. 13. Brogdon shut down Grayson Allen for a half, and when Brandon Ingram got hot, Brogdon switched over and cooled him off, too. Brogdon was guarding Ingram when Allen made the game winner at the buzzer; otherwise, Brogdon's go-ahead reverse layup would have been the shot that was remembered.
There’s no question that Virginia’s offense can sometimes depend too much on Brogdon. But it’s a bit of a misnomer that the Cavs can only play the kind of grind-it-out style that was the impetus for shortening the shot clock to 30 seconds this season.
Virginia ranked 10th in adjusted offense according to Ken Pomeroy, which is better than any of the previous two seasons. The Cavaliers are the only team ranked in the top 10 in both adjusted offense and defense. And while their tempo still ranks among the slowest in Division I, they are shooting a higher effective field goal percentage than in their previous two seasons.
This is the same team that put up 86 points in beating Villanova by 11. West Virginia has been a top-15 team for most of the season, and the Cavaliers handled them by 16 points. But perhaps their most impressive performance was when they went into Louisville -- the Cardinals were unbeaten at home then -- and earned another 16-point win.
Besides the success Virginia has had, Bennett said his team has been able to progress through its losses. After losing to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, teams in the lower third of the ACC, it took a miraculous win at the buzzer at Wake Forest to erase its road woes.
“When you lose and you struggle, then you learn,” Bennett said. “We realize how fine of a line it is with this year having struggled and lost some games early in conference season and late. When you’re aware of that, it makes you understand how on point you have to be in all those areas that are important to us.”
Defense is still most important to Virginia. The Cavaliers took away the Tar Heels' ability to run, holding a team that averaged 18 points in transition to just two. They also kept forward Brice Johnson in check. He scored 12 points, but the Cavaliers' constant double teams kept him from getting good touches for most of the second half.
“Down the stretch, Virginia had a greater sense of purpose,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
That purpose extends well beyond the reaches of the conference. The Cavaliers are playing in such a way that they're eyeing the bigger prize.