CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia forward Akil Mitchell hardly remembers a team staff member approaching with a ladder, overwhelmed by the fans surrounding him. But as fellow senior Joe Harris joined Mitchell to carry it through the masses covering the court at John Paul Jones Arena, the gravity of the moment began to sink in.
Coach Tony Bennett didn’t even want to cut down the nets, groaning when told to return to the floor, where thousands of fans hadn’t left more than 15 minutes after the final buzzer sounded. And by the time point guard London Perrantes climbed each step, a cardboard crown atop his head and a pair of scissors in his hand, not even an unexpected knot could slow down this celebration.
No. 12 Virginia ran away from No. 4 Syracuse, 75-56, on Saturday to secure its first outright ACC regular season title since 1981, the culmination of a season in which the Cavaliers have gone from ACC also-rans to national contenders in a matter of months.
“You can do nothing but smile at that point when you beat a really good team like that and you’re having success like we’re having,” sophomore Malcolm Brogdon said. “It’s surreal when you think about it.”
In the record books, it will officially be the Cavaliers’ 13th win in a row, but it also represents the defining victory of the Bennett era because of how it came to be. Virginia (25-5, 16-1) simply wore down the Orange (26-3, 13-3), showing a national television audience the same formula that has worked so well in recent weeks
Brogdon, playing through a sprained right thumb suffered in Wednesday’s win over Miami, led the way with a career-high 19 points, 17 of which came after halftime when the Cavaliers turned another tight game into a double-digit triumph.
Mitchell added 12 points and nine rebounds and center Mike Tobey chipped in 11 points and eight as Virginia dominated Syracuse inside with forward Jerami Grant (DeMatha) hobbled by a back injury. Sophomore Justin Anderson (Montrose Christian) also scored 11 points off the bench.
As has been the case throughout Virginia’s best start to conference play, it methodically broke down an opponent’s will with a combination of suffocating defense and efficient offense.
“The depth this year, the balance is what’s different. It’s not just Joe,” Bennett said of Harris, who finished with just seven points and didn’t connect on his first field goal until 4 minutes 40 seconds remained in regulation.
“All of a sudden, it just happens,” assistant coach Jason Williford added.
This time, the turning point came midway through the second half, after the teams exchanged the lead five times in nine minutes and Brogdon broke a 42-42 tie with four straight points. Two possessions later — and moments after a three-point attempt by Harris rimmed out with building ready to explode— Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis (13 points) picked up his fourth foul on a charge drawn by Virginia’s Anthony Gill.
With Ennis on the bench, Perrantes pulled up and drained a three-pointer that gave Virginia a 49-42 advantage with less than nine minutes to play. Virginia had found its groove, with Brogdon knifing through Syracuse’s 2-3 zone from the high post.
Before long, the Cavaliers led 62-47 -- part of a 48-point second half in which Virginia shot 57.7 percent from the floor -- and a sold-out crowd of 14,593 roared with a ferocity this arena has rarely seen.
“The last time I heard it that loud I was at the Taylor Swift concert,” Bennett joked.
When it was over, Bennett talked about a Friday night phone call he had with his father, Dick Bennett, the man who first taught him the Pack-Line defense that was so effective on Saturday. Dick Bennett wanted his son to deliver a message to the Cavaliers for him: “I want to see a really good man-to-man team beat a really good zone team.”
Tony Bennett then delivered his own message during a huddle just before Virginia’s clinching surge.
“Let’s stop giving them anything. We’re a defensive team, and either we’re gonna do it this way or we’re not,” he recounted. “These guys have something in them to make those runs.”
Beforehand, Bennett worried Mitchell and Harris might become too emotional following a pregame ceremony in recognition of their final home game. He reminded them, “when the season’s over, we’ll get a DJ and party at my pool.”
But once a packed student section rushed the court, there was no stopping the euphoria. No matter what Bennett wanted.
Mitchell walked into his postgame interview with the net around his neck, joking he again had to do all the heavy lifting for Harris when the two carried the ladder across the gym. Even Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, as stoic as they come, couldn’t resist rotating his hips in an impromptu dance.
This day belonged to Virginia after a win its fans had been craving for 33 years.
“You think about moments like this as a kid lying awake in bed,” Mitchell said. “It’s a dream come true.”