NCAA tournament: Virginia crushes Memphis, advances to first Sweet 16 since 1995

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the University of Virginia or Michigan State will advance to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Throughout Virginia’s run to the NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers usually would put away opponents in the second half with the grinding style that has become their calling card.

On Sunday night, with a chance to extend its memorable season, Virginia didn’t even bother waiting for halftime.

The top-seeded Cavaliers made quick work of No. 8 seed Memphis in an East Region round-of-32 game at PNC Arena, breaking the Tigers’ will earlier than anyone among a ­pro-Virginia crowd could have hoped for in a 78-60 victory that announced loud and clear these Cavaliers are more than just a regular season phenomenon.

Coach Tony Bennett’s crew now gets a trip to Madison Square Garden in New York for a highly anticipated Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4 seed Michigan State on Friday night. It will be the Cavaliers’ first appearance in the region semifinals since 1995, when they advanced to the Elite Eight.

First, though, Virginia offered up a performance that illustrated why it is the only ACC team remaining in this year’s NCAA tournament field.

The entire trajectory of this latest blowout turned during a six-minute surge to close the first half, and it was quintessential Cavaliers, built on punishing defense and a ruthlessly efficient offense.

It began with two free throws by sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, started to pick up steam with an acrobatic block by forward Anthony Gill, hit its crescendo with back-to-back three-pointers by senior Joe Harris and point guard London Perrantes and ended with a timely Gill putback just before halftime arrived.

“It felt like we took their spirit right then and there,” Perrantes said.

By the time Virginia entered the locker room, it had gone on a 16-2 run that turned a one-point game into another onslaught. And as the Cavaliers peaked, Memphis began to unravel.

After appearing capable of sticking around, the Tigers began to rush and settle for contested jumpers, hitting nothing but the top of the backboard once. They even missed several shots at the rim, and Virginia left no room for error by dominating the rebounding battle, controlling the tempo and cutting down on its turnovers.

When the game was over, Memphis senior Joe Jackson — held to just seven points and three assists after leading the Tigers in both categories this season — declared the Cavaliers to be “the best defensive team I’ve ever played against in college.”

Memphis’s press and propensity for fast breaks gave the Cavaliers trouble at times, but once the momentum shifted, it never did swing back in the Tigers’ favor. Virginia just kept coming, and a sea of orange and blue that turned North Carolina State’s home court into another version of John Paul Jones Arena roared with every basket.

It didn’t stop in the second half, either. The Cavaliers connected on 11 of their first 15 shots as the lead climbed to 25 points, and they refused to let up.

While Virginia fans chanted “Sweet 16” and “Tony Bennett” during the closing seconds, forward Evan Nolte threw down a thunderous dunk and sophomore Justin Anderson swatted one last Memphis shot off the backboard.

“We were just rolling,” Brogdon said. “It’s a great night. Not a good night.”

Harris led the charge with 16 points, knifing his way into the lane despite the Tigers’ perceived athleticism advantage. Gill added 13 points and eight rebounds, and center Mike Tobey chipped in 11 points, six rebounds and his first three-pointer of the season to cap off the evening, providing a needed boost when Virginia began the night by showing the same sort of jitters it did against No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina.

But those nerves lasted into the second half Friday. They disappeared after the first two minutes Sunday. Before long, Memphis looked like so many of the ACC teams Virginia beat down over the past few months.

The reward is a long-awaited trip to Madison Square Garden, a venue that proved so elusive a year ago. Last season, the Cavaliers failed to get to the Big Apple despite being one win away in both the Preseason NIT and the postseason National Invitation Tournament.

They left nothing to chance this time.

“Finally,” Bennett said as he entered the winning locker room Sunday. “We’ve been waiting to get to New York.”

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