Home Virginia’s season, in a weird way, lives on a little through NC State’s surprise Final Four run

Virginia’s season, in a weird way, lives on a little through NC State’s surprise Final Four run

Chris Graham
michael o'connell nc state uva
Photo: ACC

Virginia’s loss to NC State, in the moments after the final buzzer, felt like the ultimate choke job, but with the Pack headed to the Final Four, it feels like fate.

“I think just, throughout, this journey everyone has made huge plays,” said Michael O’Connell, whose three-pointer at the buzzer sent the UVA-State game in the ACC Tournament semfinal to an improbable overtime, which the Pack dominated on the way to a 73-65 win.

“When you have a lot of guys coming on the court and contributing right away, you can’t really pick the special moment when, I mean, they’re all special in their own way,” O’Connell said.

If NC State ends up cutting down the nets in the desert on Monday night, they ought to give Isaac McKneely and Tony Bennett a turn on the ladder.

McKneely, at the moment, with 5.3 seconds left, shooting a one-and-one after rebounding a Pack missed three, was an 87.3 percent free-throw shooter.

One free throw – one! – and the State season is done, and coach Kevin Keatts, who was on the hot seat heading into the tournament in DC after his team had stumbled to a 17-14 regular-season finish, might very well have been on the clock in terms of his tenure in Raleigh.

But McKneely would miss, and here’s where Bennett earned his clip of the net – Virginia had three fouls to give, but Bennett didn’t put any Virginia players on the blocks for the free throw, and instructed his players not to foul to force the Pack, which was out of timeouts, to have to reset with time off the clock.

The result was, Casey Morsell, who transferred to NC State after two awful years at Virginia, got the rebound, made the outlet to O’Connell, who met little resistance as he got off the final shot, which bounded off the backboard and did a victory lap before falling through the net.

Bennett has since acknowledged the obvious, that he should have had rebounders on the blocks for the free throw, and should have used at least one of the fouls to give.

State would go on to win the ACC Tournament, and the conference’s automatic bid, the next night, on the way to upsets of Texas Tech, Marquette and Duke to get to the Final Four.

Credit there goes to Keatts and his team, which was down double-digits in its first-round game in the ACC Tournament to last-place Louisville before rallying, for the 9-0 streak that has them here.

The hard part to figure, having watched this version of the NC State team play since its first game in DC three weeks ago, is how it had lost 14 games in the regular season.

“I’ll tell you what we did. We have broken the postseason up into different segments. When we left to go to D.C., we said we wanted to win D.C. We won D.C.,” Keatts said. “Then we went to Pitt. We say we want to win Pitt. Now obviously in Texas, we won Texas. It gets to a point when you are winning games, and like the way we are where you expect to win, and I think our guys now are expecting to win. It’s beautiful to watch.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].