Virginia didn’t win ugly. Virginia won Virginia. A 53-49 victory over Oregon in the South Region semifinals represented an extreme version of the Cavaliers’ style, but this is who they are. This is who they proudly are. And this is them trolling us by introducing doubt with their play and then squashing it just as soon as we’re ready to declare them March phonies again.
In a tournament run of high anxiety, they combat tension with identity. The great question of this post-UMBC Virginia season — and of Tony Bennett’s coaching career — is whether the program is too rigid for its own good. Is a style change necessary? Every tournament setback becomes an opportunity to take a swipe at Virginia’s tedious approach to basketball. But it feels as though this season, with the symmetrical nature of some of the challenges and the continuity that exists on a veteran roster, has provided the ultimate test of the program’s DNA.
The more the Cavaliers are pushed, the more they stay committed to their principles. With their season truly on the line late Thursday night and in the early minutes of Friday morning, they took their time, played defense, played more defense and outlasted Oregon in a game that Bennett referred to as a “knuckle buster.” Their defining plays weren’t the shots they made. They were the defensive stops they had to hold the Ducks without a field goal in the final 5:43.
During that closing stretch, Virginia went on an 11-4 run after Oregon guard Louis King had made a three-pointer. The Ducks led, 45-42. Everyone at the KFC Yum! Center wearing orange and blue started hyperventilating. It was one kind of unprecedented for Virginia to lose as a No. 1 seed to a No. 16 in the first round, and now there was a real chance that a No. 12 was about to take down the top seed a year later.
But the Cavaliers were calm. They just kept getting stops. Oregon missed five straight shots and committed two turnovers during clutch time. The Ducks’ four points came on free throws. On the other end, Virginia wasn’t spectacular. It made just three of eight shots in the final 5:43. But the Cavaliers didn’t panic.
“Those last five minutes just shows how great we can be,” Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter said.
It was a rather uneventful conclusion, especially when compared to the shooting and drama witnessed during Purdue’s 99-94 overtime victory against Tennessee. That game was spectacular, and it validated the third-seeded Boilermakers as a legitimate Final Four threat. On Saturday night, the South Region final between Virginia and Purdue should be considered a toss-up game. It’s a fun clash of styles, it promises to be physical. But Virginia had better bring some offense. It can’t bank on another game in which both teams shoot below 40 percent.
Then again, Virginia never doubts its ability to defend.
“Shooting will come and go,” guard Kyle Guy said. “That’s why we play defense at Virginia.”
Guy was prophetic. He said those words the day before the Oregon game. So blame him. He spoke this wretched game into existence.
He was right, however. Defense saved Virginia. The Cavaliers were comfortable playing a game that made observers feel uncomfortable. There’s something to be said for that. Think about how often you hear a coach lament his team’s lack of defensive intensity and blame it on players being discouraged because of missed shots. Virginia scored just 10 points in the first 13 minutes of this game. It scored just 23 in the second half and lost an eight-point halftime lead that felt like 18 in this game. But offensive frustration never overwhelmed the Cavaliers.
“Offense can come and go, and they’re really good defensively,” Bennett said. “And we stepped up defensively, so you just hang on. You hang on and hang your hat on defense, and hopefully you get enough offense.”
Call the game ugly, and Bennett balks.
“Ugly is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t great, but I thought it was pretty good looking for us defensively.”
Later, he added the essential phrase: “That’s how we’re built.”
For many, the Cavaliers can’t be trusted because their style of play can’t be loved. So much of the criticism they receive stems from their methodical approach. On the other hand, there are Virginia worshipers who praise the style to attack flashy, up-tempo basketball. But here’s the deal: A team can win at the highest level both ways, and it can flop both ways. The system and pace of play don’t matter as much as the personnel and whether the players believe in what they’re doing.
In this grimy Sweet 16 game, Virginia bought into Bennett’s philosophies on a new level by trusting the defense at a time in which it would have been easy to fall apart because of poor offense.
With 5:56 remaining, Guy was called for traveling on a play in which he tried to do too much. Bennett put his hands on his head. Ty Jerome simply extended his arms and told his backcourt mate, “Calm down.” On the next possession, King made that three-pointer to give Oregon the lead. And that’s when Virginia went into lockdown mode. The players stepped up by racing back on defense, by sliding their feet and contesting shots and rebounding the ball. Oregon was impatient and reckless.
“Just fight,” Bennett said. “Just fight. And don’t give them anything.”
It worked. Being Virginia worked. The Cavaliers aren’t going to receive a lot of praise of beating a No. 16 seed, a No. 9 seed and a No. 12 seed en route to the Elite Eight. But they’re here. And they’re whole.
Through all the past disappointment and heartache, they’re still easy to recognize, and now they’re one more victory — ugly or otherwise — from the Final Four. Virginia is in the eye of the beholder.