Coming off the football team’s first loss in weeks, you may be in a bit of a volatile emotional state when it comes to Virginia athletics. That’s exactly why we thought now might be as good a time as any to take you through the highs and lows of a roller-coaster 2016-2017 Virginia Cavaliers basketball season. Buckle up.
Down by as many as 15 in the first half with thoughts creeping in of their NCAA tournament run ending before it really began, Marial Shayok and London Perrantes combined for 47 points in what would be their final win as Cavaliers as they beat UNC Wilmington in their first-round game.
In a game that saw forward Isaiah Wilkins limited to only five minutes’ worth of action due to an illness that significantly hampered him for the final 4-6 weeks of the season, the fifth-seeded Hoos utilized a 19-3 scoring run in the final minutes of the first half to take a one-point halftime lead. The Seahawks cut the Cavaliers’ lead down to two in the final minute, but Marial Shayok’s floater off the glass sealed what ended up as a 76-71 win. That win gave UVA an NCAA tournament win for the fourth year in a row and counting, tied for the longest such streak in school history (1981-84).
Virginia lost twice at the horn last year - or at very close to it - in games that proved pivotal to their season.
The first time was against Florida State at home in their ACC home opener. Fresh off a big win at Louisville to open the conference slate, UVA found themselves trailing 57-55 with the ball with 20 seconds left. Kyle Guy nailed a corner three with 8.8 seconds left, and the Seminoles took it right back down the other way without calling timeout. Dwayne Bacon had a hand in his face as he knocked down the game-winner with two seconds left. Had Virginia won, they would have finished the season tied for second in the ACC; instead, they ended up with the sixth seed in the ACC tournament.
Against Villanova, the Cavaliers seemed to have a stranglehold on the game in the second half, before the Wildcats stayed in the game and began to chip away. Ty Jerome’s driving layup with 15 seconds left tied the game at 59, but Donte DiVincenzo’s follow-back of a missed Josh Hart layup gave the Wildcats the win as time expired. That game started UVA on one of its worst losing skids in recent memory.
Starting with the Villanova game, Virginia swooned in the middle of conference play, losing six out of eight and four in a row. They routed Virginia Tech at home before falling on the road to Syracuse 66-62 after leading by 12 at halftime (nah, that isn’t eerily familiar). Two days later, UVA stopped the bleeding by beating Louisville by 16 for their second straight season sweep in the series and fifth win in six games over the Cardinals.
Then the wheels fell off. First came especially stupid double-overtime loss to Virginia Tech. After that, a ten-point loss to Duke (again at home), a 24-point road drubbing at the hands of North Carolina, and another overtime loss at home to Miami on the night that eventual NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon had his number placed in the rafters at JPJ. Somehow, UVA held on to their ranking in the AP Top 25 poll, a three-plus-year streak that is very much in jeopardy as this season approaches. During that four-game losing streak, Perrantes went 16-58 shooting and 5-28 from three.
What helped that slump end?
Best defensive performance
They had already beaten NC State comfortably two days earlier, but going into their nationally televised rematch against No. 5 North Carolina on Feb. 27, the No. 23 Hoos still had plenty of questions surrounding them as March approached.
Those doubts were, in part, silenced against the Tar Heels. One of the best defensive performances of the Bennett era made for the worst offensive showing in Roy Williams’ tenure as UNC coach - 43 points - as the Cavaliers, who went with a small lineup for most of the game, shocked the Heels in Charlottesville.
Best second half
Against Ohio State during the ACC/Big 10 Challenge, UVA was behind by 12 at halftime and looked very much on the brink of losing in the Challenge for the first time since 2013 and just the second time under Bennett. The Hoos turned it around, however, starting the second half on an 11-0 run. Perrantes tied the game with four minutes left on a three from the top of the key, and Shayok gave his team their first lead with just under two minutes to go. A defensive stand on the final Ohio State possession gave the Buckeyes a low-quality look from the “U” in “University of Virginia” at mid-court, and UVA was 7-0.
There isn’t really any sugarcoating this one. The Cavaliers’ season, and Perrantes’ Virginia career, ended with a 65-39 thrashing at the hands of Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament. No Wahoos scored in double figures, and the team shot a collective 29 percent from the floor and 1-15 from beyond the arc.
This is, of course, entirely subjective. But for me, there wasn’t a better moment for last year’s Virginia team than for Perrantes to score a game-high 22 points, including 4-6 from three, on his Senior Day for the fifth-straight home finale in Charlottesville that had a happy ending for both the team and its departing players. He walked off the court under Bennett’s arm, reminiscent of what his father and college coach, Dick Bennett, had done on his own Senior Day at Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1992.
All in all, while UVA lost more than they’ve grown accustomed to last year (especially at home), it’s hard to chalk up the season as anything other than a success. Forward Austin Nichols, who was projected to be a key player in another long NCAA tourney run for the Cavaliers, was dismissed from the team after two games due to an undisclosed violation of team rules, and Virginia still won 23 games.
They finished four games above .500 in the ACC for Bennett’s sixth straight winning year in league play; no other Virginia coach comes close to that mark.
They won a game in both the ACC and NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year for the first time in program history; they haven’t won an ACC tourney game four years in a row since 1974.
If a bounce or two goes in a different direction here or there, the season could have been an even greater success than it was. That said, with an influx of talent at multiple positions this year, we might end up looking back at 2016-17 as something of a “down” year.