NEW YORK — You kept waiting for the circumstances to get to Virginia, for the wide-eyed factor to take over, for the Cavaliers to wilt in the flaring theatrical lighting of Madison Square Garden and the screaming brass horns of the bands and the deep drone of the roars that circled the rotunda. They never did; instead, they just got a little tired and outmanned, and it took every bit of experience for Michigan State to beat them in Friday’s East Region semifinals, 61-59.
At the start of the game, the question was whether the Cavaliers would be overcome by the moment or intimidated by the stage or simply out-experienced in what was the school’s first appearance this deep in the NCAA tournament since 1995. But they were none of that — for a long stretch they were even great. By the end, the only question was just how soon they will be back because this is a program that clearly belongs.
“They don’t have to hang their heads for how they played,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said.
The Cavaliers were in an odd position: Though top-seeded, they were truly an underdog against a Michigan State program that has been to a half-dozen Final Fours under Tom Izzo. In the days leading up to the game, Bennett had cannily played up the notion that the Cavaliers were the ingénues, no doubt because he wanted his guys to maintain their ability to sucker the opponent.
All season, the Cavaliers’ great advantage had been their element of surprise, their unanticipated quality. “They’re more athletic than they look,” Izzo remarked. They were also bigger, tougher and faster. Everything about them was a notch better than expected, from Mike Tobey’s surprising combination of size and touch to Joe Harris’s ability to see open angles in a defense to Anthony Gill’s ability to rip to the rim to their collective will to scrape for every ugly second-chance point.
Bennett spent three seasons playing with the Charlotte Hornets — yet he pretended to marvel over the New York City gridlock as if he had never seen it before. “To navigate the traffic to get here on time was an accomplishment,” he said. He oohed and awed at the posters of rock stars on the walls at Madison Square Garden and gazed around in the New York Knicks’ locker room as if impressed by it despite the horrible team that inhabits it.
“I’m trying to steal some of their sets from the white board,” Bennett said.
“Don’t do that,” someone answered.
It was all a Shirley Temple act. The Cavaliers didn’t luck into the ACC title and a top seed; they seized it by smothering opponents with the No. 1 scoring defense in the country.
“When you win 18 out of 19 games in the ACC, when you beat the likes of Duke and Syracuse the way they did and a lot of other teams, there’s no question they’re no fluke,” Izzo said the day before the game. ‘This is, in some people’s minds, the best team in the country.”
But note the qualifier: The Cavaliers weren’t the best team in Izzo’s own mind, or at least he was going to make them prove it to him. At 59, Izzo had 15 years of experience on Bennett and the upper hand in sheer March know-how. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling are trying to continue a tradition under Izzo in which every Spartans senior has appeared in a Final Four.
“We got banners hanging up in the practice facilities,” Payne said. “So we always know it’s right there and it’s always on our mind no matter what.”
Izzo also had a slight psychological upper hand given he had won a previous meeting with Bennett in an NCAA tournament setting. In the 2000 Final Four, he beat a Wisconsin squad coached by Bennett’s father, Dick, with Bennett on the bench as an assistant, and went on to win the national title. So Izzo knew something of what to expect from a Bennett-coached team — stifling defense and efficient ball control — and he was utterly unfazed by the Cavaliers’ suffocating D and controlled tempo.
“Over the years one of the successes we’ve had as a program is we could play racehorse or smashmouth,” Izzo said. “We have been able to play both.”
But what Izzo and the Spartans couldn’t possibly prepare for was just how hard the Cavaliers contested everything. With 14 minutes 9 seconds to go and the Cavs leading by 36-32, Justin Anderson dove so hard for a loose ball he slid under the chairs of the Michigan State coaches, driving the crowd to a frenzy.
But all that effort also wore on the Cavs physically. With 16:20 left, Gill had to leave the floor gimping. As the minutes grinded by, others seemed to lose their legs a little, too. Suddenly, Payne penetrated inside to tomahawk a couple of dunks that started a crucial run that spurred a seven-point lead for the Spartans. The Cavaliers never quite recovered, but they never quit, either. A deep corner three-pointer by Anderson gave them one last flare of hope, tying the score with 1:52 to go.
Even when the hope was gone and they had faded, the unmistakable air of pride lingered. They belonged here. A day earlier, Bennett had been asked whether he thought his team was in the right company.
“Are we equipped to play against them well?” Bennett asked rhetorically, then answered his own question. “I think when we’re playing at our best, our style gives us a chance to beat the best. . . . When you play against high, high-level opponents, does your system, does your style give you that chance? And that’s what we have tried to build and build.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
Feinstein: March Madness goes off-Broadway