Virginia builds up to ACC crown

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The last time the Virginia Cavaliers won the ACC regular-season title, none of the current team members had been born. None of them would be for at least another decade. Head coach Tony Bennett was 11 years old.

On Saturday afternoon, the Cavaliers ended that 33-year drought, picking apart Syracuse’s 2-3 zone in the game’s second half en route to a 75-56 win over the fourth-ranked Orange. Afterward, as the capacity crowd of 14,593 stood watching, Virginia cut down the nets -- a surprise exclamation point on a record-breaking regular season.

"We weren’t really expecting to cut down the nets," senior Joe Harris said.

Forty-five minutes before tipoff, John Paul Jones Arena was already half full. Paul Tudor Jones II, a 1976 Virginia graduate, was in attendance, as was his father, Jack, for whom the arena is named. A fan sitting behind the basket said someone had offered him $2,000 for his extra ticket -- but he wouldn’t give it up.

"This is what I’ve been coming to games for," the fan said. "Coach Bennett and his program -- they’re the real deal."

Throughout the afternoon, the arena was so loud that senior Akil Mitchell said his ears were popping. Bennett said afterward that he’d never heard such a loud crowd here, save for a Taylor Swift concert. A few weeks ago, UVa students trying to enter the ticket lottery for this final regular-season home game crashed the entire system because so many hands were clicking simultaneously.

This is what Bennett envisioned when he arrived in Charlottesville, Va., five years ago. It’s the vision he described to his first recruiting class, of whom Harris and Mitchell are the two remaining members.

"Come help us turn this program around -- that was my vision," Bennett said, a piece of the game net sitting in his coat breast pocket.

Four members of that original recruiting class transferred. Bennett’s first Virginia team won only 15 games. But his teams have improved every season since. With this season’s 25 (and counting) wins, the Cavaliers are the first team in the nation to improve their win total each season in the past five.

The Cavs’ 16-1 ACC record is a program best and makes UVa only the second team in ACC history to win 16 conference games. Saturday’s win was Virginia’s 18th consecutive ACC home-game victory, a school record, and the longest active streak in the league.

And for a program that’s been overshadowed by traditional top-tier programs or even by the ACC’s new arrivals, the Cavs' regular-season title might foreshadow what lies ahead.

"We’re overlooked because we don’t play the flashy game with the highlights on ESPN," sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "But that’s not really a bad thing."

What has stood out about this team in particular -- and what could carry it further into the postseason than most pundits would’ve predicted in October -- is its depth. Last season, Virginia won a stunner at home against Duke on Feb. 28 before losing two straight games on the road and in the first round of the ACC tournament. That team leaned heavily on Harris because it lacked a balanced offensive attack.

This season’s team has proven it has the depth even when Harris isn’t hitting. He had just seven points on Saturday, but Brogdon picked up the slack. He was their leading scorer; his 19-point performance capped a run of 17 consecutive games of double-figure scoring.

Mitchell dominated at both ends in the game’s first five minutes, while sophomore center Mike Tobey, who entered the game having scored more than four points only once in his past eight games, battled under the basket, grabbing rebounds and finishing with 11 points. London Perrantes, Brogdon and sophomore guard Justin Anderson combined for just six points in the first half but went for 30 points in the second.

And the team has rarely wavered from the hallmark of Bennett’s coaching style, as he reminded his team the day before the game: "We win it with the defense."

That game plan doesn’t showcase the talents of one or even two stars. It’s a collective effort. Everyone has to buy in to the pack-line defense. UVa limited Syracuse’s leading scorer, senior C.J. Fair, to 13 points and held the Orange to 35.7 percent shooting.

"Virginia is that good that their defense won’t allow those shots that we needed," Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said afterward.

After early nonconference losses to VCU, Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee, the Cavaliers have held 17 straight opponents and 33 straight ACC opponents to under 50 percent shooting.

"They have been the best team in the league so far this year," Boeheim said. "This is the first game all year that we have been out of the game. We have to give tremendous credit to both their offensive ability and their defensive team, too."

Bennett cautioned his team against big celebrations on Saturday, reminding it of what lies ahead. He promised his seniors -- Mitchell, Harris and Thomas Rogers -- that if they held their emotions in check during pre-game court celebrations with family, he'd throw them a pool party, complete with a DJ, once the season is finished.

Still, Mitchell couldn't help but show emotion when his roommate, Rogers, nailed a 3-pointer for Virginia's final score.

"I've never jumped so high in my life," Mitchell said, grinning.

After the final buzzer, he and Harris carried the ladder toward the basket, a fitting metaphor for the duo's role in the turnaround of Virginia basketball. And while they're graduating, it's a metamorphosis that might just be getting started.

"I don’t think we’ve grasped it yet," Perrantes said. "But it’s a great feeling right now."