Going out with class: Virginia seniors cap wild JPJ ride

virginia basketballVirginia is 41-1 at home since the exam break in December 2013. If you wear orange and blue, you pretty much know when you get in your car to head to the John Paul Jones Arena that the good guys are going to win.

The only thing left in doubt is by how much.

That’s thanks to a group of seniors that has Virginia basketball back to where it was three decades ago when three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson walked the hallowed Grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s University.

“I called the guys over to center-court after they did their TV interviews and I just said, Look around. First, give thanks. Be so thankful for what has transpired in this building over your four years. You guys have honored the pillars of the program. And that’s the greatest gift to me. Look at what’s happened and the excitement that’s happened,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said.

Malcolm Brogdon, about to be a three-time first-team All-ACC honoree, and the favorite to be the 2016 ACC player of the year, is on the verge of going to his fourth NCAA Tournament.

Anthony Gill transferred in after a freshman year at South Carolina, and the Cavs have gotten invites to the Big Dance in each of his three seasons.

The last three Virginia teams have two ACC regular-season championships, a second-place finish, an ACC Tournament championship, a #1 NCAA Tournament seed, a Sweet 16 appearance, and whatever this March Madness has to bring to bear.

It’s hard to believe the class – which includes reserves Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte and walk-on Caid Kirven – has played its last game in front of the home fans.

“I am really thankful to have had the career that I’ve had at UVA, to have the opportunity that I’ve had on and off the court here. I am really grateful and humbled for the opportunity, and having been applauded like that is really awesome,” Brogdon said after Virginia closed out the regular season with a 68-46 win over #11 Louisville Saturday night.

Brogdon wasn’t the only one hearing the cheers. You couldn’t have written a better script for this group for their JPJ finale, honestly. Nolte hit two threes in the opening four minutes to jumpstart a game-opening 13-1 run that put the game away early, to chants of “Nolte! Nolte!” from the home crowd.

Gill, continuing his return to prominence after a late-season slump, carried a sluggish Virginia offense in the first half, scoring 13 of his 15 points to push UVA to a 29-17 halftime lead.

And Mike Tobey, wow, what a night for MT: 15 points and a career-high 20 rebounds in 25 minutes.

With the game out of reach late, those four were joined by senior walk-on Caid Kirven for a brief stretch.

Kirven then hrought the house down, hitting a three from the left corner in the final minute to cap the storybook night.

“It reminded me of Thomas Rogers on his senior night” (in 2014 against Syracuse), Bennett said. “I’ve watched Caid shoot in practice a lot and him knocking down that three might have been the biggest surprise of the game. I was so happy for him. He’s had a role that’s been so significant in practice. He’s a true servant with a servant’s heart. To be able to pull those guys out with the game in hand and let the crowd appreciate what they’ve done was special.”

The win completed a perfect 15-0 home record in 2015-2016, the first unbeaten home season for Virginia dating back to 1982.

“I think it speaks to us, it speaks to Coach Bennett and what he is really doing at UVA and the type of players he is recruiting,” Brogdon said. “I think it goes not only on the court but off the court. It’s about the type of guys he recruits and their character. That character is what allows us to persevere through ups and downs and to really protect our home court every night, being resilient whether or not we’ve gone on the road and gotten beat.“

If things go according to plan from here on out, there are still as many as nine games still to play. More work, a lot more work, remains to be done.

But the cheers raining down from JPJ are now but a memory for the most successful senior class since the 1980s.

“We were a part of doing something special here,” Gill said, recounting the group’s final moments on the court together Saturday night. “We’ve helped put the building blocks down to have all the fans at the games and everything like that and to have the championships that we have.”

– Story by Chris Graham

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