Columnist

Tony Bennett watched the final shot of Virginia’s basketball season, a Justin Anderson heave from beyond half court, fade to the right of the basket and stood completely still for just a moment, his arms folded in front of him as if he simply wasn’t ready to accept what had just happened in Friday night’s East Region semifinals.

There had to be another timeout to call, another stop for his defense to get, another big shot for one of his players to hit. They had been doing it for almost three months. The Madison Square Garden scoreboard couldn’t possibly be right: Michigan State 61, Virginia 59. That part was plausible. It was the :00 he simply couldn’t believe. There would be no Elite Eight for a team that had gone from 9-4 in late December to 30-6 entering Friday’s game.

Only the memories of a remarkable season — and an alley fight of a final game.

“I really didn’t want it to be over,” Bennett said not long after that final, crushing buzzer, slumped against a wall surrounded by reporters shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday. “I’ve had so much fun coaching this group. I had so much fun coaching this game.”

He paused a moment, and a bevy of questions came at him about what the season had meant to him. He had just delivered a lengthy tribute to his team and to his two seniors, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, a few minutes earlier in the interview room. Bennett smiled wearily.

“I just talked about that,” he said to a camera. “Do you really want me to do it again?”

Then, patiently, he did it all again.

Like everyone who had been in the building for the previous couple of hours, Bennett had a right to be drained. His Cavaliers and Tom Izzo’s Spartans played exactly the kind of game most people had expected: almost brutally physical, intense and down to the wire.

Both teams had their moments and their mini-runs. Michigan State led 23-13 early. Virginia rallied to within 31-27 at halftime and then began the second half on a 9-1 run that had the usually wound-up Izzo pacing pensively in front of his bench as if it had occurred to him Virginia was even better than he had believed.

“We took a couple of punches there,” he said later. “Fortunately, this team learned through the adversity we went through how to deal with that sort of thing. At the start of the second half, the place was really hopping. That was one hell of an atmosphere in there.”

Much of the noise during that stretch was coming from Virginia’s fans, who had waited 19 years to see their team play in a Sweet 16 game. The Cavaliers were doing what they had done 21 times in their previous 23 games: making life miserable for the opponent’s offense, jumping in between players to deflect what appeared to be simple passes, getting into an offensive rhythm.

The top-seeded underdog — almost no one nationally picked Virginia to beat fourth-seeded Michigan State — appeared to be taking control of the game.

But as Izzo noted, the Spartans aren’t a group that blinks that easily. They are not built on one-and-done freshmen but around two seniors — center Adreian Payne and point guard Keith Appling — and a group of experienced underclassmen who have been forced to play expanded roles this season because of injuries.

And yet even with all that experience and a coach who has been to six Final Fours, the Spartans looked to be in trouble midway through the second half. After a missed Appling layup led to a rebounding foul by Matt Costello, Virginia had the ball and a 40-36 lead. The clock showed less than 11 minutes remaining, and the building, as Izzo noted, was being rocked by people dressed in orange.

And in a couple of eyeblinks, it all changed. Harris missed a three-pointer. Payne, who made every critical play in the game’s last 10 minutes, dunked off a pass from Branden Dawson. Then Dawson made a layup. Finally, after Malcolm Brogdon had missed a contested layup, the Spartans came down in transition and Travis Trice, the team’s sixth man who had not scored in the game’s first 30 minutes, pulled up for what appeared to be an ill-advised transition three-pointer.

Except it went in for a 43-40 Michigan State lead, and Bennett had to call a timeout.

“That was a big shot,” he said later. “We did such a good job most of the night converting on defense and getting to their shooters. That time we didn’t, and they made us pay.”

The game was far from over, even after Michigan State extended its lead to 51-44. As it has done throughout the last three months, Virginia dug in and put together a 7-0 run to tie the score on a corner three-pointer by Anderson. Now it was Izzo’s turn to call timeout with 1 minute 41 seconds left.

Great coaches know almost instinctively who they want with the ball in critical moments. For Izzo it was Payne, even though he was angry with him for passing on an open three-pointer a moment earlier. This time, Appling penetrated and found Payne, whose shot bottomed for a 54-51 lead.

“We were just a quarter-tick slow getting to him,” Bennett sighed. “We’d made it tough for him to get those open looks all night. That one time we were just a beat slow, and he buried it. Great players do that.”

Thirty-nine seconds later, after another Brogdon miss inside, Payne recognized a double-team and found Dawson for a lob-dunk to make it 56-51 with only 50 seconds to go. Virginia tried to rally, but those two plays by Payne were the difference.

Brogdon made Virginia’s last basket of the season with 1.1 seconds left to close the gap to 60-59, but it wasn’t enough. Gary Harris made a free throw, and after Izzo called a timeout to decide whether to have Harris miss the second one, he did miss — intentionally. All Anderson could do was take one dribble, heave and hope for a miracle.

“I figured my best bet was to make them take an 80-footer,” Izzo said. “Some of our guys wanted him to make it. I liked my chances the other way.”

Bennett was hoping Harris would make the foul shot, even with no timeouts left. “We had one last special play we’d worked on if we got a chance to inbound,” he said. “They were smart. They didn’t give us a chance to try it.”

Instead, Bennett had to take a deep breath, unfold his arms and go shake hands with Izzo. There was no doubting the fact that both coaches and all the players understood they had been part of a special game.

“This is the way basketball should be played,” Bennett said to Izzo as the two men embraced.

Almost an hour later, his voice (as usual) just about gone, Izzo agreed. “I wish we could play like this all the time,” he said. “Everything in that game was contested, but it was hard and clean. No nonstop march to the foul line. I loved it.”

So did Bennett. Except for those final numbers — the :00 on the clock and no more basketball to play until November. It had been an extraordinary ride for the Cavaliers. It was understandable that none of them wanted to see it end.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.