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ACC title completes Virginia’s return to relevance

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com

GREENSBORO Marcus Conrad wheeled the giant silver box out of the Virginia locker room, down a hallway and into a cold rain outside the Greensboro Coliseum. The Cavaliers manager from Lynchburg stowed it under a blue-and-orange bus. On its side, the label was clearly visible: ACC men’s basketball trophy.

Next stop: Charlottesville. For the first time since 1976.

Inside the room, Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford, who played on Virginia’s 1994 ACC finalists, reached into a crowd of people around Justin Anderson, the Cavaliers’ sophomore sixth man, to bump fists.

“He’s been telling us the only team to play on Sunday is 1994,” Anderson said. “He’s been saying that the whole time. Finally, we played on Sunday. We won on Sunday. Those guys, they didn’t win on Sunday.”

Almost four decades of pent-up enthusiasm filled the Coliseum on Sunday as orange-clad fans outroared their Duke counterparts, especially as Virginia pulled away late for a 72-63 win, clinching the regular-season and tournament championship double, beating all 14 of the other ACC teams along the way.

“We were kind of joking around when we came in, ‘Where are the Duke fans?’” said Virginia guard Joe Harris, the tournament MVP. “All we could see was orange when we drove over here. It’s special to share it with the fans. They deserve it.”

The Cavaliers were once a pillar of the ACC, a contributing factor in making the ACC the country’s dominant basketball conference. Welcome back, Virginia. You’ve been missed. Georgia Tech, take note.

Their fans were as loud as they were plentiful. The game was furiously intense. And Virginia played impeccable basketball to stifle a previously dominant Jabari Parker late and bring Tony Bennett’s five-year plan to timely fruition.

On a day when Duke picked up two technicals – one on Mike Krzyzewski, the other on Rasheed Sulaimon – and complained vociferously about a 38-11 free-throw differential, the Cavaliers never came close to losing their poise.

They get offensive contributions from so many people, use their length so effectively on defense and have two unerring shooters in Harris (15 points) and Malcolm Brogdon (23 points). As a package, it’s relentlessly effective.

Virginia basketball, never quite able to get over the hump under Pete Gillen, completely lost under Dave Leitao, is relevant again.

“The guys right now are proud, Ralph Sampson and Jeff Lamp and Wally Walker, Bryant Stith. C.A., (Cory) Alexander, coach Williford,” Anderson said. “Those guys, they’re smiling right now and happy we’ve done this. We want to continue to make them proud. We don’t want this to be one year, a one-hit wonder.”

That was never the plan. Bennett came from Washington State not as a quick fix but as a long-term solution. He has done things his way, without compromising or cutting corners. The vision has been unwavering. Criticisms of his style – the smothering pack-line defense Bennett’s father Dick espoused, the deliberate pace on offense – went ignored.

Defense was always the foundation. Harris and Akil Mitchell – the team’s only recruited seniors, one the offensive focal point, the other the defensive stopper who finally shut down Parker – bought in at the beginning, the others along the way.

“You doubt it sometimes,” Anderson said, “and the reason I start off by saying you do doubt it is because you look at this history. You say, ‘Has this team been there? Is this team capable?’ Of course you look at it and say, ‘Man this is going to be hard.’ 

Now, the reckoning. They were sold on the idea of sitting here someday, as ACC champions, from the bottom to the top. And now, they can take satisfaction in living up to the standards set by those in generations past that made Virginia basketball – and by extension the ACC – something special.

They’re taking a trophy back to Charlottesville to prove it.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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