NEW YORK — When it was over, once the last-ditch prayer fell short of the rim and top-seeded Virginia’s memorable season ended in a gut-wrenching 61-59 loss to No. 4 seed Michigan State on Friday night in the NCAA tournament’s East Region semifinals, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett stood in a hallway within the bowels of Madison Square Garden surrounded by cameras recounting the final moments.
Just a few feet away in the locker room sat his players, wiping away tears and stifling sniffles. They hadn’t backed down from the best opponent they had faced all year. They never wavered, even when most teams would have wilted.
But Bennett remained mostly stone-faced, revealing little about his emotions aside from when the biggest game of his career appeared to be slipping away. He knew one game would not define a team that for so long exceeded expectations. It still hurt.
“We really believed we could win this,” he said. “You just didn’t want it to end.”
But it did, and the final chapter of a season this program won’t soon forget ended in excruciating fashion.
As many predicted, neither Virginia nor Michigan State gave an inch the entire night, trading blows in a Sweet 16 matchup that very well could have been played in next week’s Final Four if Michigan State had not suffered through a number of injuries after starting the season 18-1 and rising to No. 1 in the national polls.
First, Virginia recovered from a sluggish start to take a four-point lead early in the second half, gaining confidence with every defensive stop. Then Michigan State struck back with the moxie of a team used to playing in games with these sorts of stakes, grabbing hold of the momentum with a 13-2 run that had the Cavaliers on the ropes, down 49-42.
But Virginia wasn’t ready to give in. Not yet. It responded with a 9-2 surge of its own and sophomore Justin Anderson tied the score at 51 on a three-pointer with 1 minute 52 seconds remaining.
Michigan State star Adreian Payne fired right back, nailing a three-pointer out of a timeout called by Coach Tom Izzo on a play in which the Cavaliers “were just a quarter of a step slow,” Bennett lamented.
Payne then found teammate Branden Dawson for an alley-oop that could have ended the Cavaliers’ hopes. That duo proved to proved to be a thorn in Virginia’s side all night. Dawson led the Spartans with 24 points and Payne added 16, many coming on thunderous dunks inside.
Senior guard Joe Harris, though, wouldn’t be deterred and a three-pointer that rolled around the rim two times before falling through the net left Virginia facing a three-point deficit with less 40 seconds to go.
It then came down to free throws, although Bennett was furious when the officials did not call a foul after it appeared Michigan State guard Keith Appling pushed Virginia’s Teven Jones on the ensuing inbounds play.
When sophomore Malcolm Brogdon (17 points) made a three-pointer with 1.4 seconds left, Virginia got one last chance. But Anderson’s three-quarter-court heave never touched rim and the Spartans moved on to face No. 7 seed Connecticut in Sunday’s East Region final.
“It seemed like anything we did or we would get something rolling, Michigan State could counter or they’d hit a big bucket,” said Harris, who finished with 17 points. “But that’s what great teams do. That’s what great players do.”
In a memorable season full of firsts – the first ACC regular season title since 1981, the first ACC tournament championship since 1976 and finally their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in more than 30 years – Virginia came out nervous for the second time in a week. Before the game, Bennett told his team whoever won this game would advance to the Final Four.
And the Cavaliers got a glimpse of what faced them on the first possession of the night. Payne found himself stuck in the corner, flustered momentarily by the post trap that has worked so well for the Cavaliers this year. But then he found teammate Denzel Valentine, who calmly swished a three-pointer.
Michigan State’s confidence only grew from there, and the Cavaliers were on their heels.
They missed shots. They had defensive breakdowns. They fell behind by double digits when Michigan State hit seven of its first ten shots, went on an 11-2 surge and looked every bit like a team that has been to 12 Sweet 16s in the past 17 years. Suddenly, Virginia saw a mirror image of itself.
“They’re a different team than we’ve seen because they stick to what they do no matter what,” Anderson said. They’re very disciplined like us.”
Slowly, though, Virginia found its bearings. And as has been the case all season, the contributions came from up and down the roster.
Center Mike Tobey, sporting tape on his right thumb, hit a fadeaway jumper and a left-handed jump hook when the Cavaliers looked uneasy and on the ropes. Sophomore Evan Nolte, the second-half hero when Virginia overcame jitters to defeat No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina last Thursday, provided one hustle play after another. And forward Anthony Gill drew Payne’s second foul and gave Virginia its first lead of the night – 25-23 – on consecutive plays to cap off a 10-0 surge.
Virginia had survived the worst, and the tide began to turn after halftime.
Forward Akil Mitchell dunked on the first play of the second half. Michigan State scored just one point over the course of six minutes. The Cavaliers dived on the floor, gobbled every rebound in sight and their fans roared with every defensive stand.
Virginia’s biggest game of the year appeared to be going like nearly every other during its magical run to the Sweet 16. Which made it all the more painful when it was over.
“It’s gonna hurt us for a while,” said point guard London Perrantes, hunched over and holding back tears.
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