Virginia battles past Miami: Ready for UNC in ACC Tournament final

virginia basketballYou’re a Virginia fan, so you’re a little frustrated that your Cavs were up 13 with 3:10 to go, and didn’t put it away until Malcolm Brogdon hit two free throws with 2.1 seconds left.

Reality check: Miami is ranked 11th in the country in the polls, and was seventh in the RPI, one spot ahead of North Carolina, entering play on Friday.

You expected the ‘Canes to just throw in the towel?

“I really liked how our guys fought and battled,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after the Cavs had finished off the 73-68 win in the ACC Tournament semifinals. “I asked them to have a warrior-like mentality heading into this game. I’m thankful to God for the guys that He brought in my path to coach, that they get after it, they sacrifice a lot. They do things that are about the right stuff.

“Were we perfect? No. Did Miami get in the paint? Did we have some breakdowns and just did not communicate and did they exploited it? Yes. I love the resiliency, and the warrior-like attitude that I ask from them. They laid it out there and now they get a chance to contend for it tomorrow.”

Ah, tomorrow, which because of the late night is now already today. Virginia (26-6, 15-5 ACC) gets North Carolina (27-6, 16-4 ACC) in the ACC Tournament final.

It’s the second finals appearance in three years for the Cavs, who won the 2014 ACC Tournament with a win over Duke.

These are the salad days for Virginia basketball, whether you realized that or not.

“We’ve got the right kind of guys. They play the right way. We’re just trying to do it the right way, as I said,” said Bennett, who inherited a dumpster fire in 2010, had Virginia back into the NCAA Tournament by 2012, and has had the program a consistent Top 10 team over the past three seasons.

This season was the most interesting of the three. An 11-1 start that included double-digit wins over Villanova and West Virginia went south in a hurry once ACC play got under way.

UVA started 2-3 in the ACC, with road losses at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State.

A buzzer-beating win over lowly Wake Forest seemed to ignite … something. Friday’s win was the 13th in 15 games for UVA.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Bennett said. “This year has been a little different than the last one. We know how good Miami is and we know what — I don’t know the final score, but Carolina put it on pretty good to Notre Dame, how potent they are. We’re looking forward to the opportunity and we’ll have to be at our best.”

Virginia beat North Carolina in the teams’ only head-to-head matchup, 79-74 in Charlottesville on Feb. 28.

The two teams were at their best that night in a game that resembled a championship prizefight. Expect more of the same when they lock up primetime Saturday night.

“Keep them off the offensive rebounds, keep them out of transition. Two big things we do really well. Two things we try to pride ourselves on the defensive side,” point guard London Perrantes said, looking ahead to the keys for the championship game.

“It will be the clash of the different styles, but we’ll be ready for tomorrow.”

The stakes for the outcome are intriguing. A number of observers feel both teams will be #1 seeds in next week’s NCAA Tournament, which if that is true means Saturday’s winner maybe gets the upper hand to the region they will be assigned to.

To hear Perrantes tell it, those issues are more for the fans and writers than for the players.

“We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about what’s ahead of us, the game tomorrow. After that game tomorrow, we’ll worry about what’s ahead of us in the tournament. We’re just taking it one game at a time. We’re just worried about Carolina tomorrow,” Perrantes said.

The environment for the final should be dripping with intensity. The Verizon Center played like JPJ North Friday night, with an obvious and decided home-court advantage for UVA.

“You definitely notice it,” said Virginia senior Malcolm Brogdon, stopping short of comparing it too favorably to the home crowds at the John Paul Jones Arena.

“I don’t know about home games because our home games are pretty crazy,” Brogdon said. “We’ve had an awesome fan base that’s given us great support and great momentum during these games. If any team has home base here, it’s us or North Carolina. Our fans have been awesome, for sure.”

– Story by Chris Graham

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