For the first time since 1981, the Virginia Cavaliers won the outright regular season ACC championship and will be the 1-seed in the ACC Tournament. They did it with a second-half offensive explosion to blow out the #4 Syracuse Orange. The Hoos trailed by one at halftime; 20 minutes later, the walk-ons were on the court in front of a celebrating, boisterous JPJ crowd, as the team rolled to a 75-56 victory.
Offensively, it was a tale of two halves for UVA. Early on, the game see-sawed back and forth, with both elite defenses having their way. The Hoos managed their scoring almost exclusively in the paint, as the first half ended with Syracuse ahead 28-27. Virginia's guards scored just 6 points in the first half, capped by a Justin Anderson three-pointer, part of a 3-4 effort from long range. Instead, the team focused on the interior, picking apart a zone that the Orange extended to shut down Joe Harris and co., and dominating the offensive glass.
But the Wahoo shooters came out of halftime firing. During a three-minute stretch early in the half, the teams combined for 21 points, with scores on 8 consecutive possessions (including 4 consecutive three-pointers) to tie the game at 40. While Virginia kept making jumpers, the Orange began to struggle against the Wahoos' packline D. After Cooney's 3-pointer with 14 minutes to play, Syracuse made just one field goal until the 3:15 mark.
During that time, UVA's 3-point barrage continued, as the team combined to shoot 8-16 from behind the arc. London Perrantes made both of his three-point attempts, including a cold-blooded one from NBA range to stretch the lead to 7 points. Anderson followed with a 3 of his own, then Malcolm Brogdon hit two jumpers to bring the lead to 11 points with 5 to play, as the roof came off of JPJ.
The Hoos brought the lead above 10 points for good a few minutes later, and when Joe Harris joined the three-point party soon after, it was all over. UVA made its free-throws down the stretch, brought it on the walk-ons, and the graduating Thomas Rogers put an exclamation point with a three-pointer on UVA's final possession. The bench exploded on that one, and, as Tony Bennett put it, JPJ was even louder than last year's Taylor Swift concert.
The win was a testament to UVA's depth. The team scored inside, hit jumpers, rebounded, and took care of the ball (just 11% of possessions ended in TOs against a defense predicated on forcing mistakes). Four players scored more than 10 points, and nine scored overall. The team's offensive efficiency number of 1.37 PPP is simply amazing.
Malcolm Brogdon's 19 points, including a perfect 8-8 from the FT line, led the team. He was the team's go-to guy against the zone in the second half, dishing 5 assists and stroking some mid-range jumpers that the Orange just couldn't stop. The performance boosted Brogdon to 8th in KenPom's POY standings, and will give him a nice edge in the ACC first-team race.
Akil Mitchell had a huge senior night, scoring 12 on 6-8 shooting, and keying the team's dominance on the boards. Syracuse's biggest offensive strength is collecting offensive rebounds, but it was UVA that took care of the glass tonight. The Hoos finished with a DReb% of 72.%, while the Orange pulled in just 59% of UVA misses. Mitchell's always been the team's best rebounder and best defender; recently, he's really picked his offensive game back up to 2013 levels, and it was nice to see him show it tonight. This early alley-oop from Perrantes was pretty cool too:
Speaking of rebounding, props have to go to Mike Tobey, who must have really hit the weight room in the past few days. He pulled down 8 rebounds and scored 11 points on 5-8 shooting. Tobey was more active than we've seen in a while, and really fought on the defensive boards.
Joe Harris has seen better days, as he went 2-10 from the field. If you told me before the game that Thomas Rogers would finish with as many 3s as Harris, I would probably think we lost. Not the case for this team. Finally, Anderson and Perrantes joined in on the scoring, combining to shoot 5 of 7 from downtown. London had 7 assists and 2 turnovers, winning a battle with Tyler Ennis, who was a tough matchup for the Wahoo defense, but ended up fouling out.
What a day it was for Tony Bennett and this team, as everything came together this season to lead to this title. And special thanks go to Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris, along with Thomas Rogers. Four years ago, Mitchell and Harris became a part of Bennett's first recruiting class, hoping to turn the game around. Today, they walked off the court after playing their final game, celebrating a regular season ACC championship. Wahoo fans appreciate all their hard work and dedication during their careers, and look forward to more great things. Watching them and Coach Bennett cut down the net after the game was something special.
We're not done yet. UVA has a long week to take a deep breath before finishing the regular season at Maryland next Sunday. Last year, the team never seemed the same after their emotional win over Duke. The blowout win over Syracuse is worthy of celebration, but the Hoos have to refocus for their final regular season game, then post-season play. If the last few months are any indication, these guys will be ready.
Here's the video of the team cutting down the nets after the game. Previously, I was in the camp that would have preferred if fans hadn't rushed the court after the game...but I take it back. This was something special: