GREENSBORO, N.C. — Virginia senior Joe Harris often can’t tell how he’ll play based on his pregame shooting routine.
But when he launched a bomb of a three-pointer during the Cavaliers’ layup line Friday afternoon at Greensboro Coliseum, Harris turned to forward Akil Mitchell and sophomore Justin Anderson and offered a hint at what was to come over the next two hours.
“These are shooters’ rims,” he said.
Harris’s words rang true early and often, and top-seeded Virginia cruised to a 64-51 victory over No. 9 seed Florida State in an ACC tournament quarterfinal.
With the win, the Cavaliers advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 1995, ending the longest active drought in the conference. Virginia will face fifth-seeded Pittsburgh, which held off No. 4 North Carolina in the afternoon’s second quarterfinal, on Saturday afternoon.
The sixth-ranked Cavaliers have made plenty of history en route to securing their first outright ACC regular season title since 1981. Harris, though, hadn’t been making many shots, embroiled in a slump over the past six games.
But his latest outburst could prove crucial as Virginia tries to make a run through March. He promised reporters this week to be more assertive now that the postseason has arrived.
Against the Seminoles, Harris delivered a game-high 20 points — the first time in nearly a month he led Virginia in scoring. He also finished 7 of 12 from the field — the first time since a Jan. 18 win over Florida State that he shot better than 50 percent.
Harris did his damage from all over the court, knifing through the lane with an aggression seen only sporadically down the stretch of the regular season. He realized quickly Florida State was a step slow chasing him around screens.
His first basket was a three-point play and his next came on a three-pointer. He then hit two more from beyond the arc when Virginia turned a five-point halftime lead into another double-digit advantage in the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
Considering the Cavaliers’ stingy defense also forced 15 Florida State turnovers, it didn’t matter that sophomore Malcolm Brogdon struggled offensively (six points on 2-for-10 shooting) and just one other Virginia player — forward Anthony Gill — scored in double figures.
“He has a good feel when to let it come,” Coach Tony Bennett said of Harris. “He senses when something is required of him.”
There was more to this game than Harris, though. On Thursday, after Florida State defeated Maryland, Seminoles senior Okaro White offered up some trash talk about Virginia’s toughness. When these teams last met in Charlottesville, White nearly came to blows with Virginia freshman London Perrantes in the postgame handshake line.
The Cavaliers got wind of the comments Thursday afternoon, and Bennett stressed his players not “get caught up in the jibber-jabber,” Brogdon said.
Early on, though, the intensity was clear. Bennett eschewed his reserved sideline demeanor, stomping and shouting with every defensive stop or bad call with his team playing for just the second time in 13 days and coming off a loss to Maryland in its regular season finale last Sunday. White (team-high 17 points) backed up his bravado, and the Seminoles, in desperate need of a marquee win to enhance their NCAA tournament hopes, initially stayed close.
But Virginia had other ideas, intent on erasing its ACC tournament demons.
“We just really wanted to go out there and prove to everybody that we deserved to be here. We deserved to be the number one seed,” said Gill, who contributed 16 points off the bench.
Harris seemed to relish that pressure Friday, but there was more to his hot shooting than those friendly rims.
After the game, he talked about how the ACC tournament features Spalding-brand basketballs instead of the Nike-issued balls Virginia uses during the regular season. They’re softer, Harris insisted, with deeper ridges.
“It’s just the little stuff that you kind of notice,” he said.