January 31, 2002. Rivalry week. Top Eight matchup. Huge crowd. Epic campout. This game had it all.
The Virginia Cavaliers were in the midst of Pete Gillen’s fourth year as Head Coach and had come into the 2001-2002 season with lofty expectations. After ascending to No. 4 in the country a month earlier, Virginia was ranked No. 8 and was 14-3 on the year. Excitement was through the roof, evidenced by Hooville (the area outside U-Hall designated for students camping to line up for seats) being filled with well over 100 tents. The Maryland Terrapins were equally strong. Ranked No. 3 and having won eight of their last nine, the game did not disappoint.
In a back and forth first half, Virginia ended up pulling ahead and took a 46-44 lead into the break. The Cavaliers, featuring a high octane offense led by Roger Mason, Jr., Chris Williams, and Travis Watson led by double digits late in the second half, but it was with 2:40 when the “fun” began. The Hoos led 85-78 as Williams missed a free throw. Drew Nicholas then drilled a three for the Terrapins, and Virginia point guard Keith Jenifer rushed a runner in the lane, giving Maryland another chance. Two free-throws later and the Virginia lead was cut to two. With 1:40 left, Mason hit two free throws to extend the lead back to four. They’d be the last points Virginia would score all night. Nicholas made another gigantic three to cut the UVA advantage to one and lead us to our “what if.”
With about 50 seconds to go, Mason split a double team but missed the shot. Travis Watson, as he was oft to do, came up with a big offensive rebound. As he went up for the put back, he had the ball stripped, and despite there being three Terrapins surrounding the ball, it was deemed to have gone off Watson. Replay for out of bounds calls wouldn’t be added until the 2013 season, but had it been available, I’m certain the ball would have been awarded to the Hoos. Instead, Juan Dixon then made an incredible play to give the Terps the only bucket they’d need. A missed runner by Williams, two more free throws by Tahj Holden, a missed three point try by Elton Brown (not the football player), and another free throw would ice the 91-87 defeat.
From there, the Hoos’ free fall commenced. They’d end the season losing six of their final nine, going one-and-done in the ACC Tournament, and missing the NCAA Tournament. After reaching No. 4 in the polls in January, missing the NCAA Tournament was incredible.
This game has always been a big What If for me. I’ve long felt it’s represented a peak of Virginia Basketball in the Pete Gillen era. But what if Virginia had gotten the ball back with 46 seconds to go and a one point lead?
Clearly they would have milked some clock with Mason drilling a three as the shot clock wound down, giving Maryland only a few seconds to make up a four point deficit. After the floor was cleared and Charlottesville’s hangover subsided, the game would be seen as a turning point for the Cavaliers.
After adding wins over ranked teams, Missouri, Wake Forest, and Duke, the regular season would come to a close with a narrow loss at Maryland. However, the momentum would lead to a semifinals appearance in the ACC Tournament and the season would finally end with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen (let’s not get too carried away).
The real impact would be felt that offseason as Mason would opt to stay for his fourth year instead of leaving school early and starting his NBA career. The next season, the Hoos would improve on their Sweet Sixteen appearance from 2002 and have their season fall a game short of the Final Four with Majestic Mapp, Watson, and Mason leading the way.
The next seven years would be a renaissance of Virginia basketball with the Hoos making the Tournament each year and Pete Gillen giving Terry Holland a run for his money as best Virginia coach of all time. In addition, John Paul Jones Arena would feature the strongest A/C system known to man (to keep Coach Gillen from sweating through seven shirts a game) and the era would be remembered for the following highlights:
- Todd Billet’s late-game heroics would become legendary with his three to send the Hoos to the 2003 Elite Eight
- Elton Brown would shoot over 40% from three in 2005 gator chomping his way back down the court after each one
- Jason Cain would make All-ACC first team in 2007 leading a group of students to don mustaches and call themselves the Cain-iacs
- Coach Gillen would set an NCAA season record for most games running out of time outs before the under-eight time out
- And 1 would become the second biggest brand in college basketball with Virginia as its flagship program
The era would culminate in 2010 when the Hoos would go up against the upstart Washington State Cougars, led by a young Tony Bennett. The game would be a referendum on run and gun, exciting offense against slow, defense first, boring basketball. In the end, offense would win the day as Bennett and the Cougars would get sped up while their sophomore phenom Klay Thompson would go 1-9 from three. Pete Gillen would bring a championship to Charlottesville and the Virginia Cavaliers would become the hallmark of up-tempo basketball for years to come. Meanwhile, Bennett would parlay his emergence into a very successful NBA coaching career, however his success was cemented after he abandoned the pack-line defense chalking up the lessons he learned at the hands of his defeat against Gillen and the Cavaliers.
Who am I kidding? Everyone knows that team couldn’t win away from home. Even if they pulled out the Maryland game, unless the NCAA First Round was played in University Hall, the Hoos were bowing out early.