In ACC tournament, Virginia bears down, wears down Florida State

John Feinstein
Columnist March 14

When it was over, it felt routine, almost easy.

Virginia’s 26th win of the season was a lot like so many others this winter. The Cavaliers inched along during the first half and then put the clamps down in the second, strolling to a 64-51 win over Florida State in Friday’s ACC tournament quarterfinals.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia’s leading scorer, had a miserable, 2-of-10 shooting day. It didn’t matter. Coach Tony Bennett wasn’t at all happy that the Seminoles had six offensive rebounds by halftime. So the Cavaliers owned the boards by a 21-13 margin in the second half and, at times, looked like they were the big kids playing keep-away from the little kids over the final 10 minutes.

Afterward, they all talked clinically about what had happened in the first game of the tournament’s second straight long day’s journey — noon until midnight — into night.

Joe Harris, who had his best shooting day in almost two months (7 of 12 from the field) talked about getting “good rhythm looks” and about his teammates’ “outstanding screens.” Bennett was thrilled with the opportunity his team had on Friday and would have again on Saturday, and with his team’s “wisdom, passion and compassion.”

Exactly how much compassion the Cavaliers showed for the Seminoles, whose chances to sneak in the back door of the NCAA tournament bracket were dashed, is open for debate. But that wasn’t what Bennett was talking about.

What Bennett wanted on Friday was to make sure his team could get back what it had during the last two months of the regular season, when it demolished 16 ACC opponents in 17 games before suffering a noticeable letdown in what was — to Virginia — a meaningless regular season finale last Sunday against former rival Maryland.

That’s why he was very un-Bennett-like on the bench at the beginning of the game, shaking his fist for good plays, helping the officials make calls and letting his players know exactly what he thought when they made mental mistakes.

There was little doubt that Bennett was very aware of the fact that his team had played one game in 13 days and that the Seminoles already had their tournament feet underneath them after their last-second win over Maryland on Thursday.

“Look, it isn’t as if you don’t get fired up for regular season games; you do,” he said. “But because of the way the schedule fell and because I wanted the guys to remember that this is postseason, I wanted them to see that I was really into the game early so they would be into the game early.”

He smiled for a moment: “I’m not sure it worked, but eventually we got it.”

Virginia isn’t a team that comes out of the locker room breathing fire. The Cavaliers are the little kid who keeps tugging on your leg asking for a cookie until you finally give in to exhaustion and give him the cookie.

They guard. Then they guard some more. They rebound. Then they rebound some more. They make good decisions and then make some more good decisions. They pound you, especially anytime you dare try to get the ball into the lane. Then they pound you some more.

Long before 40 minutes have been played, most teams throw their arms up, say “no mas” and give the Cavaliers their cookie — and the basketball game.

That may explain why Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton made a beeline for Bennett with 10 seconds still left on the clock, as if he couldn’t wait to shake hands and put the afternoon in his rearview mirror. Playing Virginia is like a trip to the dentist except there’s no laughing gas. This was the third time the Seminoles have been to see Dr. Wahoo, DDS this season. Each time the result has been virtually the same: Virginia by 12, Virginia by 12, Virginia by 13. That’s not a coincidence.

“Down the stretch, we just ran out of gas,” Hamilton said. “They just keep executing and executing. I think that’s why they’re probably one of the top teams I’ve seen in a long, long time. They make you pay every time you make a defensive mistake.”

Much was made — understandably — about the fact that the Cavaliers will be playing the ACC semifinals for the first time since 1995. Bennett remembers that tournament well, and it was his first trip to Greensboro and the ACC tournament. He was playing for the Charlotte Hornets at the time.

“A friend of mine got me tickets up in the nosebleeds, and my fiancee and I went,” he said. “I remember Wake Forest and North Carolina playing a great final.”

Virginia, which lost in the semifinals to Wake Forest that year, meant nothing to Bennett back then. In fact, he was unaware that had been the Cavaliers’ last appearance in the semifinals.

“Really?” he said.

Really. Bennett remembers his first four trips here, two of which ended in the quarterfinals, including a close loss to Duke in 2010 and a blowout loss a year ago to North Carolina State that knocked the Cavaliers off the bubble and into the National Invitation Tournament.

There are no such worries this year. The Cavaliers, regardless of what happens the next two days, will probably be a No. 2 seed and open NCAA tournament play in Raleigh, N.C., next week.

Bennett waved off that kind of talk. “It isn’t as if it isn’t important; it is,” he said. “Getting to the semifinals is important, too. But what’s most important is that we take advantage of the opportunity this weekend to play for this championship and then, I hope, be ready to play our best basketball next week.”

What has made Virginia such a tough out since January isn’t just the Cavaliers’ relentless defense but the fact that they can score quickly some of the time and can get contributions from 10 players. Eight scored on Friday, led by Harris’s 20 points and Anthony Gill’s 16. Eight players got at least one rebound. Six had assists and four had steals.

And they all play defense, which is why they can turn an important March game into a pleasant afternoon stroll into the next round.

Pleasant, unless you’re the opposition.

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