From the Archives: Looking back at the Last Ball in U Hall
Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Mad About U: Four Decades of Basketball at University Hall, by Chris Graham and Patrick Hite, from the chapter on the final game played in University Hall, in 2006.
Dave Leitao wanted a timeout.
The clock on the scoreboard hanging above center court read 00:25. Virginia was down one, but a turnover by Maryland’s D.J. Strawberry offered Leitao the opportunity to make the deciding move in the chess match that he had been playing with Terrapins coach Gary Williams all afternoon.
The shot clock was off – meaning that Leitao could work it so that his team had the last chance at scoring in what had been billed as The Last Ball in U Hall.
The emotion of the day had long since worn off. Down by as many as 18 points early in the second half, the Cavaliers outscored the Terps 32-12 over an 11-minute stretch to take the lead on a Sean Singletary runner with 3:52 to play.
Maryland, to its credit, didn’t fold up its tent and go home in the final men’s basketball game in University Hall. A Mike Jones three-pointer from the left wing gave Williams’ charges a 71-70 lead at the 1:13 mark, and that’s where things stood when Leitao signaled for time.
It was clear what was in the cards. The first-year coach had faced a similar situation a month and a day earlier at home against Wake Forest.
Tied at 73, Leitao had called time with 16 seconds left to design a play featuring his star guards, Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, that saw Singletary drive around his defender to draw a double team and dish to a wide-open Reynolds on the right baseline for the game-winner.
His other option today would be a pick-and-roll with Singletary and swingman Adrian Joseph that would either free up Singletary for a teardrop jumper in the lane or the usually accurate Joseph behind the three-point line. But Joseph had been uncharacteristically off his game – 0-for-3 from behind the arc and 2-for-7 overall – and he had not even been in the lineup down the stretch.
For all intents and purposes, then, it was coming down to a last-second shot from Singletary or Reynolds.
That the weight of 41 years of UVa. basketball was crashing down on their shoulders was apparent from a glimpse at the faces seated in Section 11.
The man they still call Coach had been worried that the buildup to the final men’s game in University Hall would add to the pressure that Leitao and his young team would face on the court.
“I told Dave that when I saw him today,” Terry Holland told reporters about an hour before tip-off.
“He was over in the building shaking hands and everything. I said, ‘I hate that you have all this on you, as well as how important this game is to your team.’ He said, ‘This is all part of it.’ He said, ‘That’s no problem.’ But yes, I do think it adds a level of pressure,” said Holland, who himself contributed to the pressure by playing the key role in bringing University of Virginia basketball to the point where people cared about its past, its present and its future.
Before Holland was hired to take over for Bill Gibson in 1974, Virginia basketball was, at best, an afterthought. Things had started looking up with the arrival of Barry Parkhill in 1971, but it wasn’t until Holland – who won 326 games in his 16 seasons in Charlottesville – stepped on Grounds that UVa. was a part of the national college-hoops discussion.
Holland was also responsible for the pressure of the moment in another way – it was he who, as the school’s athletics director, had pushed for the administration to take the initial steps to find a replacement for University Hall when the talk on Grounds had been focused on making improvements to the aging structure.
So he knew well what was going on – he had orchestrated it from the day that he had moved to Central Virginia three decades earlier.
“It would be like saying, ‘Well, the water is 214 degrees. Well, 212 is boiling. Once it starts boiling, it doesn’t matter how much more you turn the heat up,’ ” Holland told reporters.
“I don’t think it will have a negative impact. I would hope that it would have a positive impact. But you always do worry about that. There was sure a lot of pressure on us, it felt, certainly as a coach, when these two guys were playing as seniors their last home games,” Holland said.
“These two guys,” seated next to Holland at the pregame press conference, were Wally Walker and Ralph Sampson – the two cornerstones of Holland’s program-building efforts.
Walker was the headliner of the 1976 team that won the school’s only Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship. Sampson was a three-time national player of the year who led UVa. to a National Invitation Tournament title in 1980 and a Final Four appearance in 1981.
They were far from being the only Ghosts of Virginia Basketball Past on hand for the weekend of festivities that included tours of the sprawling new John Paul Jones Arena and various reunions of the formal and informal variety.
As much as it added to the pressure-cooker that was University Hall, the atmosphere that the presence of the Ghosts – in all, more than 90 former players were in the arena for the final home game – had brought along with them was something that Leitao had very much sought out.
“I’ve said before that I like to consider myself as much a basketball fan as a basketball coach – and following college basketball as I have, to remember a lot of the names that were associated with the University of Virginia, and then to have them all in one place at one time to watch our team play, and then getting the reaction from being a part of that special weekend, was for me a tremendous honor to be a part of,” said Leitao, who came to Virginia in 2005 after a successful three-year run at DePaul.
Leitao replaced Pete Gillen, whose seven-year tenure at the University was marked by the development of a sense by more than a few former players that they were no longer welcome back on their old stomping grounds.
“It’s a different feeling than we had in the previous years,” 1992 graduate Bryant Stith told reporters before the game. “You feel a lot more comfortable coming around – you feel a part of the basketball family. I don’t know if we could say that honestly about the past. This is something that we can build towards. Hopefully we can reconnect the past players of the program with today.”
“This was something that I think needed to happen a long time ago,” said 1998 graduate Curtis Staples, who was another one of the Ghosts in Section 11 for The Last Ball.
“Virginia has had a great reputation in terms of family atmosphere – and I would say that before Dave Leitao came in, it was kind of lost,” said Staples, whose NCAA record for career three-point field goals made had been broken earlier in the 2005-2006 season by Duke sharpshooter J.J. Redick.
“Now that Dave’s here, it’s come back again,” Staples said. “I think a lot of the players in the past used to come back in the summers to play, old and young, and we kind of reunited that way. But during the Pete Gillen era, that was lost. So for everybody to see each other again all at once, it was special. Even some of the older players who couldn’t play back during the era of Jeff Jones, they still used to come back for a day or so just to kind of hang out and see everybody.
“We all felt like we were back together again – and everybody just enjoyed seeing each other. I think that’s something that Leitao has put in place this year, and he’s been very adamant about continuing. After all, that plays a major, major role in the success that he will have in terms of recruiting players,” Staples said.
Leitao, for his part, hoped his players were able to soak in the vibe that the stars of the past brought with them to the final weekend of University Hall.
“It was something that I know that our program right now desperately needs – and we can feed off of and help create that family atmosphere and the tradition that is the success of that basketball program,” Leitao said.
“It’s like in any other part of life – if you’re trying to create success, if you’re trying to teach your kids about chemistry and camaraderie and being part of a family and being part of something special, you can’t do it without recognizing your past. And we happen to have a very successful past – not just in wins and NCAA tournaments, but in people, very successful people. So I think it’s important to honor them – because they’ve meant so much to this program. They’ve left their blood, their sweat and their tears here,” Leitao said.
“I think it’s important that when you have current players and hopefully future players that can look back and see models of what success can be like – it makes your program better, and it makes their lives better. I think it’s a win-win situation for anybody. Obviously the former players need to feel that this is a special place. Your current players need to know that there are some people that they can look up to. And then your future players know that they can be part of something special as well,” Leitao said.
Stith, whose number 20 had been retired after his final home game in 1992, was feeling like a kid again – literally.
“Just as I felt as a high-school senior seeing those players on the sideline watching me play in high school, I’m sure that the current players felt the same way – to have that history all in one building, and to have participated in the Last Ball at U Hall, I think that’s going to resonate for them for years to come,” said Stith, whose Brunswick High School team won the 1987 Group AA state championship in a game in University Hall with R.E. Lee-Staunton – and whose memory of that game, won 54-52 on a 40-foot buzzer-beater that Stith assisted on, is of players from that year’s UVa. team sitting courtside.
“These guys have the adrenaline that’s going to carry them forth today. That’s what Senior Day is all about,” Stith said minutes before the start of the Maryland game.
“These guys here today, it’s going to be an awesome feeling. Once they come out that tunnel for the last time, it’s going to be something that they remember for the rest of their lifetime,” Stith said.
An R.E. Lee-Staunton alum who made his name on the hardwood at University Hall when Stith was still in grade school was busy gathering his own memories.
“It was special just to see everybody,” said Mark Newlen, a 1977 graduate. “When you’re playing, as much as you would like to, you can’t get a full picture of the history and the tradition, because you’re wrapped up in your season and your four years. I was fortunate to have been able to play overseas and then coach four years. To be able to see it from way back – from the Buzzy Wilkinsons all the way to the last game – it was heartwarming.
“It was nice to see former teammates, to see guys who had similar experiences – the camaraderie, the enjoyment of the shared experience with the other guys and the fans and coaches and administration and professors. It was a wonderful couple of days,” Newlen said.
“The games are great, but it’s the memories of the friendships, relationships, that you make through your college-basketball experience, that stay with me today,” Newlen said.
Bobby Stokes, a teammate of Newlen and 1979 grad who is now a doctor in private practice in Charlottesville, was representing the Stokes family at The Last Ball – his brother, Ricky, a guard on the Sampson-era teams who is now the head coach at East Carolina, where Holland now serves as AD, was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.
The doc admitted to having “mixed feelings” about the final home game in the gym that he grew up in.
“It was sad – because it was like that era was coming to a close with U Hall finally closing. But it was joyous at a time where we felt like it was our family again,” Stokes said.
“Even though we still keep in contact fairly well – I still see Coach Holland, and I keep in contact with some of the players – when you get together, it’s like old times. It’s like family. You feel very comfortable. A lot of us just fell into old jokes and old times. That’s what’s missed – and that’s what was the good part about it and the sad part about it,” Stokes said.
It wasn’t just a special day for former players and coaches.
“It’s appropriate that it’s Maryland,” said Matt Smyth, a 1998 graduate who had somehow managed to work his way up from the cheap seats to the scorer’s table.
Smyth, whose day job has him serving as director of communications at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, described his center-court perch as “the best seat in the house.”
Of course, he was prohibited from cheering – or storming the court after a big win, as he had done as an undergrad.
“But the view is great,” Smyth said – and that he was at the center of the action for the grand finale was something that he’d been looking forward to for weeks.
“There’s the long rivalry with Carolina, and Virginia Tech’s a natural rival. But it seems in basketball – especially in the ’90s, from the games that I went to as a student, and the games since then, there have been some really good games (against Maryland),” Smyth said.
Elizabeth Hood didn’t care as much about the opponent as the fact that she was back in the building. The retired University of Virginia budget-office employee had worked as an usher at University Hall for 30 years before giving up that job at the start of the 2005-2006 basketball season.
Most of that time had been spent working press row – which had her in touch with the colorful characters from the world of the working media who always seemed to make it a point to come by and say hello.
“I’m such a hugger and talker. Most of the young men would come up and speak to me – and they’re always very polite,” Hood said from a seat on press row that had been reserved for her return.
She was sitting, as it turns out, a few feet away from where she was nearly trampled to death following a UVa. win over a highly ranked Duke team several years before.
“We beat Duke, and when we did, the students stampeded. I stood up at my chair right there,” she said, pointing to a spot a few chairs down, “and they knocked me over. My chair rolled over my ankle and broke my ankle all the way through.
“The strength coach saved my life, they said. It was four or five football players behind me on top of me. If he hadn’t come and pulled them off, I probably would’ve died,” Hood said.
Ever the trouper, “I missed one game,” Hood said.
“I sat up there in the handicapped section for one game. The rest of the games, I was here working with my cast on,” Hood said.
The hardest thing for her to do, she said, “was not to yell and clap. Working on press row, I’d clench my teeth, you know.”
The hardest thing about this day was trying to figure out where she stood on the pending move to what people had long since taken to calling JPJ.
“I’m happy that they’re moving on to bigger and better things – but sad also to leave where I’m so used to,” Hood said.
Her successor on press row, Elizabeth Tidwell, was staring down the same issue.
“I’ve been a fan since Ralph Sampson, so this is a special day for me,” said Tidwell, who lives in Lake Monticello and is a fiction writer.
“It’s special for our fans, too – because we have lots of people who have been sitting in the same seats for a long time. Before I started working on press row, I got to meet those people and shake hands with them and hug them and find out if they have a lucky hat or T-shirt,” Tidwell said.
She looked out into the sea of orange that filled the seats in the minutes leading up to the start of the game.
“I’m going to get a little teary-eyed. I know that already,” Tidwell said.
It was over in a flash.
The first-half struggles, the 18-point deficit, the comeback – accomplished, for the most part, with Sean Singletary, who later would be named an All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-teamer, sitting on the bench with four fouls – it all came down to one moment in time.
Leitao, as expected, had put the game in the hands of his guards – namely Singletary, who was given the task of dribbling down the clock and then reviving the magic that he had brought to life at the end of the Wake Forest game in February.
Something was amiss from the start, though. Part of it was Maryland’s defense, which in the place of pressuring Singletary and risking allowing him to get into the lane sat back and offered him an open look at the basket from three-point range.
That wasn’t what was supposed to happen – just as the issues with spacing between Singletary and J.R. Reynolds weren’t on Leitao’s dry-erase board, either.
Singletary, confused by what was going on around him, picked up his dribble, then frantically shoveled the ball to a cutting Reynolds, who had carried the Cavs in Singletary’s stead en route to a 30-point outing.
Off balance, Reynolds flung a wild jumper at the rim with two seconds to go – as 8,392 people waited with baited breath to see where the ball would wind up.
It looked to be on line, in spite of it all.
But Reynolds, in his haste to overcorrect for the momentum that was carrying his body away from the basket, was too strong.
The ball bounded out of the hoop and bounced harmlessly to the floor as the final horn sounded.
In what was a cruel twist of fate, somebody handed Leitao a microphone moments later – to begin the postgame ceremony marking the occasion.
“You can understand, for obvious reasons, how difficult this is for me,” Leitao poured into the mike.
“We fought, we scrapped, and we clawed – and obviously came up a little bit short today. But I wanted to win for you and our players more than anything that I’ve wanted in my life,” Leitao said.
He expounded upon that theme in his tête-à-tête with reporters a little later.
“It’s an extremely emotional time for me, both good and bad, to try and figure out the whys and the wherefores about today, and from a history standpoint of what being a basketball coach here means,” Leitao said.
“If I never knew, and I thought I knew, I saw it before me all weekend. It continues to be, and it will always be, a tremendous honor to stand on the sidelines before a group of men who have put forth such great effort to make Virginia basketball what it is and what it will be,” Leitao said.
Gary Williams knew what was going through Leitao’s mind. The Maryland coach had closed down Cole Field House with a win over Virginia in 2002.
“It’s a great atmosphere to have all the former players back. We had ours back, too,” Williams said of that experience.
“Just to have everybody there that’s important to Maryland basketball, part of Virginia basketball, with the heritage you have in the ACC – our league’s a little different than some leagues,” Williams said.
“It’s not a new league. There’s still a lot of teams that have been here for a long time in the league. That’s great for Virginia that they have a new place, and it was great for us to move into Comcast Center. It is a special day. Believe me. And it gets more special as you get away from it,” Williams said.
Leitao, months later, was still having a hard time with that – with the getting away from it.
“Each and every game you play, I don’t want to use the word pressure, but you create an opportunity – and that opportunity is to do the best job that you can to win the game. I felt that as I do with every game. But there were a whole lot more things going on in and around that weekend that were different than any other game – and so you have to adjust and adapt to it,” Leitao said.
“It wasn’t anything that obviously during the game affected you adversely – but at the same point in time, different events, different people, different events going on right up to game time, that can cause you to break a routine. From that standpoint, you may not have liked doing that – but at the same point in time, it was a necessary thing that you needed to do to make sure that we can end things the right way,” Leitao said.