GREENSBORO, N.C. — The day already had been an historic one, filled with confetti and a conference title 38 years in the making. But as Selection Sunday reached its apex, and the NCAA tournament field was unveiled, the Virginia men’s basketball team sat around tables at Kickback Jack’s, a sports bar in Danville, Va.
Hours after beating Duke, 72-63, to capture their first ACC tournament championship since 1976, the Cavaliers were trying to beat the snow back to Charlottesville when their day got even better.
Virginia (28-6) secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and will face No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina, the Big South champion, in an East Region first-round matchup Friday in Raleigh, N.C. The Cavaliers, who would play No. 8 seed Memphis or No. 9 seed George Washington in the second round with a win, beat out No. 2 seeds Villanova (East Region) and Michigan (Midwest) for the final No. 1 spot.
It’s the first time in 31 years, and the fourth time in school history, the Cavaliers have entered the NCAA tournament as a top seed.
In a Sunday night teleconference, Coach Tony Bennett said his players learned their fate in a restaurant packed with Virginia fans who greeted them at the door. Word had leaked that the team planned a pit stop to watch the NCAA tournament selection show.
“They’re giving each other hugs, high-fiving. . . . We probably weren’t as choreographed or orderly as some of the other [teams] I saw sitting together” on television, Bennett said. “We were just sitting at some tables with some water, some wings and good nachos and cheesesteaks.”
It wasn’t the only celebration of the day for those who have suffered through the lean years of Virginia basketball.
Earlier, the Cavaliers put on a show of grit and determination that wowed the thousands of orange-clad who made the trip to Greensboro Coliseum to witness the program’s first appearance in the ACC tournament championship game in 20 years.
Virginia withstood every Duke run, responding in kind and wearing down the mighty Blue Devils (26-8) with the same balanced approach that so impressed the NCAA tournament selection committee. Even Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski couldn’t avoid frustration, picking up a rare technical foul after throwing a marker toward the bench in disgust late in the first half.
Senior Akil Mitchell scored seven points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and he did his best work hounding Duke star Jabari Parker all afternoon on defense. The future NBA lottery pick finished with a team-high 23 points, but needed 24 shots to get there. He didn’t score a point over the final 6 minutes 46 seconds, shifting momentum for good after a back-and-forth sequence that featured four lead changes and four ties.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Virginia forward Anthony Gill said of Mitchell. “He just slides his feet really fast. He knows when to jump. He frustrates players a lot.”
Virginia senior Joe Harris earned ACC tournament MVP honors, scoring 13 of 15 points in the second half when Virginia weathered surge after surge by the Blue Devils. The Cavaliers committed turnovers and missed foul shots, but they wouldn’t wilt.
Sophomore Malcolm Brogdon had a career-high 23 points and Gill (12 points, seven rebounds) again proved crucial off the bench, attacking Duke’s interior players and getting to the free throw line 17 times. Virginia, the ACC regular season champion, shot 54.2 percent in the second half en route to its 16th win in 17 games.
“Virginia’s total résumé was very impressive to us,” NCAA tournament selection committee chairman Ron Wellman said on CBS on Sunday night. “They won the ACC regular season championship and followed it up with a tournament championship. They just continued to impress us throughout the year. They were always in that vicinity in February when we met, was right there knocking on the door and continued to play well down the stretch. We were very impressed with them, obviously, to put them on the No. 1 line.”
When Sunday’s game ended, the streamers cascaded to the floor and the confetti dropped from the ceiling. ACC Commissioner John Swofford stood on the podium, ready to hand the championship trophy to sophomore Justin Anderson. But Anderson made him wait some more.
Anderson turned, called toward Harris and Mitchell and made room. They had been the ones who stuck with Bennett through the rough patches when he first arrived in Charlottesville five years ago. This day and this seed were their moment.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Mitchell said minutes later. “But we’ve solidified ourselves in the history of U-Va.”