ACC Tournament monkey: It’s off UVa.’s back now

acc tournamentThe ghosts of 1995. As every UVa. basketball fan alive knew all too well, that was the last time a Virginia team won a quarterfinal game in the ACC Tournament.

Most years, the ‘Hoos weren’t even competitive. It’s been a long lean period for a program that went to two Final Fours in the 1980s and spent the better part of three seasons ranked at or near the top of the national polls when a certain 7’4” superman named Ralph Sampson patrolled the paint in orange and blue.

That 1995 team that was eliminated by Tim Duncan, Randolph Childress and Wake Forest in the ACC semifinals ended up going to the elite eight. Then-coach jeff jones brought in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class; the future seemed bright.

Then it all came crashing down. The recruiting class didn’t work out; Jones was gone within three years; and the first two men to replace him, Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao, made a combined two trips to the NCAA Tournament in the next 11 years.

Tony Bennett seems to finally have Virginia basketball back on track. The Cavs won the 2014 ACC regular-season title, the program’s first since 1981, the Sampson era.

But the one bugaboo that still persisted in the form of lingering doubt is the lack of a meaningful win in the ACC Tournament. Twice, Virginia teams on the heels of an NCAA Tournament bid lost in the quarterfinals to NC State teams and ended up on the wrong side of the bubble, including last year, when a listless performance against the Pack sent a UVa. team with 21 regular-season wins and 11 ACC wins to the NIT.

The doubts are so persistent that the headlines in the local papers in Greensboro coming into this year’s tournament focused on how UVa. could very well become the first tournament #1 seed to lose in the quarterfinals since 1989.

You could see it in UVa. coach Tony Bennett, who was much more animated on the sidelines than he has ever been in his five years in Charlottesville.

“Well, I mean, it was a physical game,” Bennett said when asked about his obvious change in demeanor after the Cavs’ 64-51 win over Florida State that got the monkey off the program’s back.

“You got to be ready. We haven’t played for a while. I think just it’s this is not that it’s okay to not be that way during the regular season. But this is a great opportunity for us. I thought our guys were ready. We wanted to set the tone. I was just trying to encourage and be engaged and be passionate. That’s what we talked about to our guys. Be passionate. Play with passion wisdom, passion and compassion. Those were the three things we talked about today in playing that way.”

The players felt it – the 19 years of history weighing down on them in the form of negativity.

“Everybody keeps saying that we haven’t won a game here in a long time, the ACC Tournament, first round, stuff like that,” said forward Anthony Gill, who scored 16 points in the win. “It’s good for everybody, especially the seniors who have been here and experienced that. It’s good to get them a win. We want to send them out with a bang.”

Joe Harris, who scored a team-high 20 points in the victory, is one of those seniors. Harris seemed a couple of inches taller in the locker room postgame.

“We had the Miami meltdown in my first year, which was a tough one to swallow. And then losing to two good NC State teams in back-to-back years. This feels good,” Harris said. “This is very, very rewarding. It’s a huge step for the program for us to get it going in the right direction and show that we’re capable of playing in the postseason.”

Fellow senior Akil Mitchell, who had four points and six rebounds on Friday, was all smiles as well.

“It was big. It’s big to get a game under your belt, to kind of shake the jitters off and get rolling. We’re in a really good spot right now,” Mitchell said.

Freshman London Perrantes, who had six points and three assists, was just an infant the last time Virginia won on an ACC Tournament Friday, but he was well-aware of the significance of the FSU win and what it means to the program.

“It’s a good feeling,” Perrantes said. “I feel like we were all nervous, a little jittery at the beginning of the game. There’s a lot of history behind us not being able to win games. To be able to get that first one down is definitely going to give us more confidence and make it easier for us going forward.”

Wahoo Nation seemed to sense it was coming. The John Paul Jones Arena was never louder than it was for the home finale on March 1, the 75-56 win over Syracuse that clinched the ACC regular-season title, and the fans were out in full force at the Greensboro Coliseum on Friday for the FSU game.

The team noticed the turnout and show of support.

“The first time that we walked out to our bus from the hotel, we had fans just lining up cheering us on to go to the game, that was pretty cool,” Harris said. “And then we get here, and we figured we would probably have a large fan base. People are very excited about the team right now. They’ve been great for us all year. JPJ, the fans, have been the best in our conference. I might be a little biased, but they’ve been great for us all year, and we knew that they were going to travel.”

Now to the other bugaboo hanging over the UVa. basketball program. For all the success in the Sampson era and the span of the Terry Holland and jeff jones eras, a 15-year period that saw Virginia appear in 12 NCAA Tournaments, two Final Fours and two other Elite Eights, Virginia still only has one ACC Tournament championship to its credit, coming way back in 1976.

That’s so long ago that Coach Bennett was only 7 at the time.

Could this be the year to add a second banner to the rafters at JPJ?


UVA Basketball Fans!

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