GREENSBORO, N.C. – Tony Bennett’s father caught him by surprise Saturday morning.
Dick Bennett had told his son the night before that he had been too nervous to watch the Cavaliers’ win over Florida State on Friday, and that he wouldn’t be making the drive down from Charlottesville unless Virginia earned a spot in the ACC tournament championship game.
But there he was, standing in the hotel lobby to greet the Cavaliers about four hours before their semifinal matchup with Pittsburgh. And at some point, the former college coach — and the man who taught Tony Bennett the pack-line defense that has become his program’s calling card — made a prediction.
“This is going to be . . . a blue-collar knuckle-buster,” said Tony Bennett, moments after Virginia narrowly advanced to the ACC tournament championship game for the first time in 20 years.
The top-seeded Cavaliers put on a performance Dick Bennett had to love, escaping with a 51-48 victory over No. 5 seed Pittsburgh on the strength of a defense that wouldn’t give an inch when it mattered most.
Sixth-ranked Virginia held the Panthers to 36.7 percent shooting, often forcing Pittsburgh to heave contested jumpers at the rim as the shot clock expired. But it was down the stretch, once the Cavaliers went nearly six minutes between field goals, that revealed a resiliency few teams in the country can conjure.
The final play of the game, when Virginia clung to its three-point advantage with four seconds remaining, defined that fortitude. Sophomore Justin Anderson trailed Pittsburgh’s James Robinson (DeMatha) around a screen, watched Robinson pump-fake and then blocked his three-point attempt.
The ball landed in Anthony Gill’s hands with just 0.5 seconds left, and the orange-and-blue-clad faithful at Greensboro Coliseum exhaled and celebrated all at once.
“I got four fingers on it and that was the best feeling ever,” said Anderson, an All-Met from Montrose Christian.
Virginia has won the ACC tournament just once before, when it defeated North Carolina at the old Capital Centre in Landover in 1976. The Cavaliers will face No. 3 seed Duke on Sunday after the Blue Devils beat North Carolina State, 75-67, in the afternoon’s other semifinal game.
Virginia lost to Duke, 69-65, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the teams’ only meeting this season on Jan. 13.
Senior Joe Harris led the Cavaliers with 12 points Saturday and Gill, playing just a few minutes from his home town of High Point, N.C., hit several timely baskets in the contest’s waning moments — including two free throws to give the Cavaliers their final points — en route to scoring 10 points off the bench.
But Virginia (27-6), which could be in contention to snag the final No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with another win, wouldn’t have gotten past the Panthers (25-9) without a little fortune.
Sophomore Malcolm Brogdon (10 points), who hit a game-winning shot to propel Virginia to a 48-45 victory at Pittsburgh on Super Bowl Sunday, nearly fumbled away the win late. Following a lay-in by Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson, Brogdon had the ball stripped by Robinson, who raced down the floor for a layup that trimmed Virginia’s lead to 49-48 with 10 seconds left.
It could have been worse. Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon fumed on the sideline in search of a foul on Cavaliers forward Akil Mitchell as he challenged Robinson at the rim. Even Mitchell conceded after the game he may have committed an infraction.
“The referees definitely weren’t calling a lot of fouls today because I know a couple times I fouled a couple guys [and] they didn’t call it; I was really surprised,” Gill said. “But I guess it worked out for our benefit.”
Leading up to those final moments, the game went as everyone expected. Neither team was willing to give an inch during a first half that featured 11 lead changes and six ties. Virginia shot 47.8 percent before halftime, but Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna countered by scoring 12 of his 15 points in the opening 20 minutes.
In the second half, Virginia pulled ahead, 45-37, with less than 10 minutes to go, spurred by a sequence in which Mitchell blocked a sure-fire fast-break lay-in from behind and Anderson, Gill and forward Darion Atkins swatted a shot all at once on the next plays.
But Patterson (15 points) would not allow the Panthers to wilt like Florida State had 24 hours earlier, answering back as the Cavaliers went cold. They never, though, gave up the lead, setting the stage for the tense “knuckle-buster” Dick Bennett predicted all along.
“Our defense didn’t let us down,” Tony Bennett said. “It was just enough.”