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Bennett on the NIT: ‘I hope they’re chomping at the bit’

tony bennett NIT
Virginia coach Tony Bennett. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett was about as direct as you could be about playing in the NIT.

“We didn’t deserve the right to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Bennett said after the Cavaliers’ 60-57 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday in the NIT first round.

And, they didn’t. Virginia had played its way onto the bubble, then lost three of their last five, two at home, one a 20-point whuppin’ in the ACC Tournament by a North Carolina team that this Virginia team could play 100 times and maybe win one or two.

“The reward for this season wasn’t an NCAA Tournament, but the reward was being in the next best 32 teams selected. That was the reward for them,” Bennett said.

The ability to regroup from the Carolina beatdown and build toward next year was important, Bennett told his team.

“I told them, Whether you win or lose this game, this to me is a statement game for us not for anyone else. What are we made of? What kind of fight will we have? How will we approach this? And I said, This is about us,” Bennett said.

Virginia led 27-19 at the half, and it felt like it should have been a bigger margin, the way the ‘Hoos were in control.

Mississippi State was flustered – nine turnovers, three backcourt violations in the opening five minutes.

And then, in a flash, the Bulldogs put together a 15-5 run and forged ahead.

“We came out and scored, I think, four or five baskets in a row to start in that second half, and felt good about it,” MSU coach Ben Howland said, and actually, it was seven makes in a row to start the second half for the Bulldogs, six of them layups.

It was a game then. Virginia answered with a 12-2 run to go up eight, then Garrison Brooks, a UNC transfer, hit a trio of triples to get the ‘Dogs back to one.

Virginia was up seven with 35 seconds left, but couldn’t close it out at the line, missing a technical free throw, the front end of a one-and-one and then both ends of a two-shot foul.

Mississippi State had the last shot, and Iverson Molinar missed a potential game-tying three at the buzzer.

Survive, and advance.

It was important experience really for everybody not named Kihei Clark, who started on the 2019 national title team, which seems like a million years ago now.

Reece Beekman was a starter last year’s ACC regular-season champs, but that team only got one ACC Tournament game – a win, before the team had its tourney run shut down by COVID, ahead of not being able to practice before its first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Ohio.

The team’s two leading scorers, transfers Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin, had no postseason experience beyond conference tournaments.

“No, it’s not the NCAA Tournament, but it’s still the NIT. To me, I hope they’re chomping at the bit to continue on and get as ready as we can for our next game,” Bennett said.

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
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