CHICAGO — As the Virginia men’s basketball team sat grappling with the harsh reality that it had let its chance at the program’s first Final Four berth since 1984 slip away in stunning fashion in the second half of the Midwest Region final Sunday, each of the Cavaliers’ key players reverted to the poise he had exhibited all season.
Malcolm Brogdon, in lieu of a speech after the top-seeded Cavaliers’ 68-62 loss to No. 10 seed Syracuse, reveled in the personal connections he had made in his five years at Virginia. The senior went around the Cavaliers’ locker room at United Center and told each teammate how much he meant to Virginia basketball and to Brogdon himself. Coach Tony Bennett, tasked with eulogizing the most promising season Virginia has had in years as well as his five seniors’ collegiate careers, leaned on his faith. He cited what he believed to be an old church song.
“It says weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” Bennett said. “We will have some tough nights because you’re so close you could taste it, but absolutely, joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia basketball.”
Bennett will relive what could have been later. He’ll watch tape to try to understand how Virginia succumbed to Syracuse’s press and the pressure of the moment to suffer a stunning loss after leading by 16 early in the second half and 15 with less than 10 minutes to play.
Bennett’s squad was cruising to a win before the Orange pulled off a remarkable 25-4 run over a six-minute stretch that turned Virginia’s 54-39 lead into a 64-58 deficit.
“It happened quick,” junior guard London Perrantes said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t tell you how it happened. It just hurts.”
The Cavaliers finished their season 29-8, while Syracuse (23-13) advances to face North Carolina in Houston on Saturday, the first No. 10 seed to advance to the Final Four in tournament history.
The game began to turn when Syracuse switched from its familiar zone — effective at handcuffing Brogdon to that point but not the Cavaliers’ other scorers — to a full-court press to get Virginia out of its rhythm. The Cavaliers went nearly six minutes without scoring at one point.
Brogdon, who had 21 points in Virginia’s eight-point win over Syracuse in January, was limited to 12 points on 2-for-14 shooting. Perrantes scored 18 points on six three-pointers to pace Virginia, and Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey each added 10 points.
“When they threw that press on us, we didn’t really handle it in the best fashion,” Gill said. “We got a couple turnovers that really wasn’t what we do. . . . We couldn’t keep them out of the lane, and it’s just something that U-Va. basketball doesn’t pride itself on, and that’s what happened tonight, and that’s how they were able to get back into the game.”
Brogdon made two free throws with 26 seconds left to pull Virginia back within two, but after Tyler Lydon made 1 of 2 free throws for Syracuse, Devon Hall missed a potential tying three-pointer on the next possession and the Orange iced the win at the free throw line.
Malachi Richardson led four Syracuse players in double figures with 23 points. Michael Gbinije and Tyler Lydon each scored 11 points, and Tyler Roberson had 10. The Orange beat Virginia on the glass and had 12 offensive rebounds, seven in the second half.
“We fully understand that it was our game to win and we just gave it away,” Gill said. “We fully understand that.”
Dissection of the loss quickly turned into praising Virginia’s senior class, which Bennett has long credited with building the foundation for Virginia’s success over the past few years.
The Cavaliers have won 112 games over the past four seasons, tying a program record for a four-season span, and Brogdon ended his tenure as the toast of the ACC after winning both the league’s player of the year and defensive player of the year awards.
“It is difficult,” Brogdon said, “but at the same time, you start to reminisce. You start to remember all the good times you’ve had, and you start to realize how special these guys sitting next to you and on the court with you, how much they mean to you, how much your coaches mean to you, how much you’ve learned from them, and just how much you’ve enjoyed your experience and your college career.
“Sometimes we get caught up so much in playing the game, trying to win every game, being so focused — I’m a very locked-in guy, rather than just smelling the roses — and now we can smell the roses. We can enjoy what we’ve established.”