CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Virginia Tech center Satchel Pierce made two free throws with 7 mintues 32 seconds left Saturday afternoon, things got a little bit quiet inside sold-out John Paul Jones Arena. What had been a comfortable 46-33 Virginia lead five minutes earlier was whittled to a not-so-comfortable 50-46 margin.
The Hokies made tough three-point shots (6 of 11 in the second half) and drove the lane frequently, keeping the Cavaliers from turning the game into the blowout most would have expected between the No. 2 team in the country and one now tied for last place in the ACC standings.
And then Virginia did what Virginia does. Malcolm Brogdon hit a three-pointer. Point guard London Perrantes, who had apparently re-broken his nose at the end of the first half, made a driving layup. Evan Nolte was fouled and made both free throws. Nolte made a three-pointer and, finally, Darion Atkins, the only senior starter on senior day, hit a short jumper. It was 62-46. Tech hadn’t scored in four minutes.
The final was 69-57. For the 27th time in 28 games, Virginia had done what Virginia does. Most of it wasn’t pretty because the Cavaliers don’t do pretty. They do tough. Perrantes, who didn’t play at Wake Forest on Wednesday because of a concussion, started the game wearing a mask to protect his broken nose. He played the second half without the mask.
“He was going after a loose ball and fell on it again,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “After that I think he just said, ‘Screw it’ and took off the mask.”
These Cavaliers are guys who break a nose, get a concussion, re-break a nose, take off the mask and say, ‘Screw it.’ They are guys who lose their best player, Justin Anderson, to a broken finger on his shooting hand and don’t miss a beat or a game. They are guys who are 27-1 and hear that they’re bad for college basketball and say, ‘Screw it.’
Let’s get this straight: A team that plays like maniacs on defense for 40 minutes every night, makes key baskets whenever it has to and keeps on relentlessly winning is bad for college basketball? A team with a mix of upperclassmen and kids that has jelled superbly the last two seasons and has clinched at least a tie for a second straight ACC regular season title is bad for basketball?
Virginia’s approach to all this? Screw it.
“I did go online one night and see a headline about us being bad for college basketball,” Bennett admitted. “I was around that when I was at Wisconsin [coaching under his dad, Dick], so it doesn’t bother me. Honestly, I’m just overwhelmed by what these kids have accomplished this season. I can’t get caught up in that. There’s an issue with scoring in all of college basketball, but to me, that’s the beauty of the game: Not everyone plays the same way.
“I told our guys the last couple of days we have to continue to embrace who we are. We play low-scoring games a lot because we go through stretches where we struggle to score sometimes. But part of it is our defense. We’re pretty hard to score against.”
The 57 points scored by the Hokies on Saturday actually increased Virginia’s points-allowed average, from 49.9 to slightly more than 50 points per game. By allowing Tech to stop the Cavs’ clinching 12-0 run after a little more than four minutes, Virginia missed out on what would have been the 26th time this season it had held an opponent scoreless for at least five minutes.
“Wow,” Bennett said upon hearing that stat. “That’s pretty good.”
There’s more. Six times Virginia has held opponents to less than 40 points, the last time this past Wednesday when, without Perrantes and Anderson, they won at Wake Forest, 70-34. That was just the third time in history an ACC team has more than doubled the score on another ACC team. The second time it happened was five weeks ago, when the Cavaliers beat Georgia Tech, 57-28.
No Cavalier averages 15 points per game — Brogdon, who had 19 points on Saturday, averages 13.5 and Anderson, when healthy, 13.4. Atkins has become a defensive monster after waiting his turn for most of three years. The only moment when Bennett got truly upset Saturday came with 1:07 left, when Atkins held on to the rim a little too long for referee Jeffrey Anderson’s taste after a vicious slam and was given a technical foul.
“I guess he did kind of swing on the rim,” Bennett said, smiling. “I lost it there a little bit, but I didn’t want anything to take away from that moment.”
Twenty-one seconds later, Atkins took a pretty pass from Nolte — who has filled in admirably in Anderson’s absence — and dunked with one hand. Moment restored.
Anderson should be back for the ACC tournament. Worst-case scenario, he’ll be back for the NCAA tournament when the ultimate fate of this remarkable team will be decided.
“When we move the ball well, really work on defense and make some shots, we’re good,” Bennett said. “We’ve got some guys who are sneaky talented, better than people think. They’ve all bought in and gutted out everything you could ask them to gut out.”
Even their coach guts things out. Bennett spent most of Friday night sweating out a fever but was ready to go by game time Saturday. He came to the arena prepared to read to his players a quote sent to him by Steve Larson, an old coaching friend.
The quote was from John Wooden: “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.”
Bennett thought about reading it to his players before the game but decided against it. “I figured that you have to earn the right to hear a John Wooden quote,” he said.
They earned it Saturday. They’ve earned it all season. And the best may be yet to come.
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