The catchword for Virginias 1996-97 mens basketball team was progress.After suffering through a difficult 1995-96 campaignUVas first losing season under head coach Jeff JonesVirginia rebounded with a winning record of 18-13 (7-9 ACC). The Cavaliers also advanced to the first round of the 1997 NCAA West Regional, marking UVas 13th trip to the big dance since 1981 and fifth in the coach Jones era.
Before they could go dancing, however, the Cavaliers had to face one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Of UVas 13 losses last season, 10 were against teams ranked in the AP top-20. Virginia played a total of 15 games against nine teams which competed in the NCAA Tournament.
In an effort to help prepare his team for the 1996-97 season, Jones organized a 10-day European Tour in August of 1996. Consisting of seven returning players and former Cavalier center Chris Alexander, the UVa contingent posted a 3-3 record against quality international teams from Belgium and France.
Virginia opened the regular season in impressive fashion, reaching the finals of the Maui Invitational in Maui, Hawaii, with convincing victories over South Carolina and 17th-ranked Massachusetts. After falling to second-ranked Kansas in the tournament finals, the Cavaliers won 13 of their next 18 games, including a 75-63 triumph over 13th-ranked North Carolina. UVa suffered a four-game losing skid before winning three of its last four regular season games, including an 81-74 victory over 16th-ranked Maryland in the regular season finale for both teams.
After losing to fifth-ranked North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the 1997 ACC Tournament, UVa ended its season with a 73-60 loss to Iowa in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In addition to Virginias many notable victories during the regular season were some character-building defeats, including tough road losses to Connecticut (in overtime) and Wake Forest, and a controversial 62-61 home loss to Duke which ended amid confusion over a substitution Virginia was not able to make.
Showing tremendous perseverance, the Cavaliers refused to let such setbacks keep them from reaching their main objectives: posting a winning season and reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Despite featuring nine returning lettermenincluding four returning startersthe 1996-97 Cavaliers were relatively young and inexperienced. Of UVas seven upperclassmen, only four had played more than 63 career minutes before last season. The rest of Virginias roster consisted of one sophomore, two red-shirt sophomores and four true freshmen.
Pleased with how far his squad came during the course of the 1996-97 season, Jones said, Without question the program is on the right track. I feel good about the direction were headed.
Defensively, Virginia allowed 65.0 points per game and held the opposition to 40.9 percent field goal shooting. UVa opponents shot less than 38 percent from the field 12 times and under 40 percent 15 times.
The Cavaliers connected on 36.2 percent of their three-point field goal attempts last season, tying the school record for three-point percentage. UVa finished second in the ACC last season with 205 treys, the second-highest total in school history.
Featuring a strong perimeter game and improved play up front, UVa shot over 50 percent from the field four times last season. The Cavaliers made 42.7 percent of their field goals for the season, up from 41.6 percent in 1995-96.
Virginias starting backcourt showcased the talents of senior point guard Harold Deane and junior Curtis Staples. Two of UVas top three leading scorers last season, Deane and Staples became the first teammates in ACC history to make at least 200 career three pointers.
No one epitomized Virginias will to win last season more than Deane. Playing most of his senior season with an injured right leg which caused him to noticeably limp on the court, the talented point guard started 30 of UVas 31 games and logged more minutes of playing time (36. 4 mpg) than any other Cavalier. Named a 1997 third-team All-ACC selection, he led Virginia last season in assists (4.5 apg) and steals (1.6 spg) while finishing second in three-point field goals (53) and third in scoring (12.9 ppg). Deane finished his career ranked eighth in ACC history with 237 three-point field goals. His 237 career three-pointers rank second in school history behind Staples. Deane finished in the top 10 in a number of other UVa career statistical categories, including: seventh in scoring (1763 points), third in steals (179), fourth in free throws made (546) and assists (468) and eighth in blocked shots (61).
In addition to his outstanding offensive play, Deane was regarded as one of the best defensive players in the country in 1996-97. He was named to the ACC All-Defensive team by ACC Net Scoop as voted on by the leagues head coaches.
Staples led the ACC last season in three-pointers made (98) and three-pointers per game (3.2). The 1997 honorable mention All-ACC selection finished second on the team last season in scoring (13.9 ppg), steals (0.8 spg) and minutes played (33.7 mpg). At the end of his junior campaign, he ranked first in school history and fourth in ACC history with 283 career three-pointers.
Among Virginias key backcourt reserves in 1996-97 were senior captain Jamal Robinson and freshman Willie Dersch. In addition to starting 13 games last season at forward, the versatile Robinson backed up Deane at the point-guard spot. Playing in all 31 games, he finished second on the team in assists (1.9 apg) and rebounds (4.8 rpg), and fifth in scoring (5.6 ppg). Showing great promise for the future, Dersch played in 28 games last season, averaging 2.8 points, 1.5 rebounds and one assist per contest.
Juniors Mike Curtis and Pete McLaughlin provided additional depth in the backcourt.
Getting more consistent frontcourt play was a top priority for Jones entering the 1996-97 season. Junior Norman Nolan, a returning starter at the power forward slot, responded by finishing the season with career-best averages in points (11.3), rebounds (7.4), blocks (0.5) and minutes (28.9) per game. His 107 offensive rebounds last season marked the second-highest total in school history since offensive rebound statistics were first kept in 1986-87. Virginias main offensive threat down low, Nolan posted six double doubles in points and rebounds during the 1996-97 season. He was particularly strong against ACC competition, averaging 12.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in conference play.
Virginias returning starter at the other forward spot was sophomore Courtney Alexander. The 1997 honorable mention All-ACC selection ended up playing in 26 of 31 games with 20 starts after suffering two severe ankle sprains during the course of season. Despite the injuries, he still managed to lead the ACC in three-point field goal shooting percentage (44.4) and the team in scoring (14.8 ppg).
Among last seasons most pleasant surprises was the performance of freshman center Colin Ducharme. Originally expected to red-shirt, the rugged inside player worked his way into UVas starting lineup by the ninth game of the season and emerged as a valuable contributor on both ends of the court. He led the Cavaliers with 41 blocked shots (sixth in the ACC, 1.3 bpg). He also finished fourth on the team in rebounding (4.4 rpg) and averaged 5.5 points per game. Ducharmes 41 blocks marked the second-most by a freshman in school history behind Ralph Sampsons 157 in 1979-80. Starting in 22 of UVas final 23 games, Ducharme led all Cavalier rookies in minutes played (19.7 mpg). Although overlooked in voting for the ACC All-Rookie team, he finished in the top five among ACC freshmen in virtually every statistical category.
Other frontcourt help last season came from Robinson and red-shirt sophomores Monte Marcaccini and Chase Metheney. Marcaccini, a transfer from Pepperdine who sat out UVas 1995-96 campaign, averaged 1.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game last season as a reserve forward. He played in a total of 22 games with five starts. Metheney started at center in the first eight games of the season before being replaced in the starting lineup by Ducharme. The 7-4 pivot man played in a total of 24 games last season, averaging 2.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.
Rounding out last years frontcourt players were a pair of freshmencenter Kris Hunter and center/forward Craig McAndrewand senior Martin Walton.
It took a 10-hour flight to reach the site of Virginias first regular season gamethe Maui Invitational, held November 25-27 in Maui, Hawaii. The trip was well worth it, however. In addition to going snorkeling and attending an island luau with several other teams, the Cavaliers rolled to the championship game with back-to-back victories over South Carolina and Massachusetts.
Virginia shot a blistering 57.8 percent from the field, including 62.5 percent in the second half, in a 93-70 first-round tournament victory over South Carolina. In contrast, the eventual Southeastern Conference regular season champions shot just 35.9 percent from the field.
That was a total domination, said Gamecock head coach Eddie Fogler. They were outstanding and had a lot to do with us playing poorly.
Alexander led the Cavaliers with a game-high 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. Deane followed with 19 points while posting game highs of nine assists and nine rebounds.
The Cavaliers continued their hot shooting in a 75-68 victory over 17th-ranked UMass. UVa shot 49.1 percent from the field for the game as Alexander and Nolan shared game-high scoring honors with 20 points apiece. UVa led 34-22 at halftime after holding the Minutemen to 25.0 percent field goal shooting in the opening stanza.
Virginia suffered an 80-63 loss to second-ranked Kansas in the championship game. The Jayhawks made nearly 70 percent of their shots in the second half (18 of 26, .692), while Virginia struggled, shooting 28.1 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes. Kansas out-rebounded UVa 47-26. Deane led four Cavaliers in double figures with 14 points, followed by Nolan and Staples with 12, and Alexander with 11. Nolan grabbed a team-high seven rebounds.
Alexander was named to the Maui Invitational All-Tournament team. He averaged 19.0 points per game during the tournament and shot 48.7 percent (19-of-39) from the field, including 58.3 percent (seven-of 12) from three-point range.
The Cavaliers returned to the continental United States with a 2-1 record and a feeling of accomplishment. We take away a good feeling overall with how we played as a team, said Jones.
Virginia traveled to Fairfax to face in-state rival George Mason on November 30. The Patriots, known for their run-and-gun style under head coach Paul Westhead, gave UVa a fast-paced workout before falling 106-93. Alexander led the Cavaliers with 26 points. Staples added a season-high 19 points while Deane and Robinson each finished with 17. Robinson also pulled down a career-high 12 rebounds for the first double double of his career. UVa shot 53.1 percent from the field.
Following the win, Virginia climbed to No. 25 in The Associated Press Poll.
UVa improved to 4-1 with a 75-64 victory over William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., on December 4. Leading 33-31 at halftime, Virginia opened the second half with a 28-8 run to build a 22-point bulge (61-39) with 9:05 to play. Nolan was a force inside, scoring a career-high 22 points on nine-of-13 shooting. Alexander added 14 points, Staples 13 and Robinson 10. Robinson led Virginia with a game-high nine rebounds.
With the five-game road trip to start the season behind them, the Cavaliers played an early ACC game at University Hall against Clemson on December 7. The Tigers overcame an 18.8 percent first-half shooting performance and a 10-point second-half Virginia lead to win the conference opener for both teams 62-52. Alexander led the Cavaliers with 16 points while Nolan pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds.
Coming off a 10-day break, UVa hosted in-state rival Liberty on December 18. Despite posting a 67-54 victory, the game ended on a bad note for the Cavaliers when AlexanderUVas leading scorer in the game with 20 pointssprained his left ankle and was helped off the court with 2:02 remaining.
Without Alexander in the lineup, the Cavaliers relied on solid defense and rebounding in posting a 57-34 victory over UMBC on December 21. Virginia held the Retrievers scoreless for over seven minutes in the first half and out-rebounded UMBC 45 to 31. Staples scored a game-high 17 points, including five three-point baskets.
Virginia, 6-2 overall, ventured to Storrs, Conn., for a December 23 encounter with Big East power Connecticut. Still without Alexander, the Cavaliers battled UConn to a 53-53 tie at the end of regulation. Connecticut held a slim lead for most of the overtime period and went up 64-61 with 6.6 seconds remaining on a pair of made free throws by Rashamel Jones. Deanes three-point attempt at the buzzer fell just short of the mark, breaking UVas string of 11 consecutive overtime wins. Nolan came off the bench to finish with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Staples and Ducharmemaking his first career starteach added 11 points while Deane finished with 10. Ducharme pulled down five rebounds. Marcaccini also made his first career start as a Cavalier, finishing with five points and seven rebounds.
I feel better about our basketball team in this loss than in the past two wins, Jones told reporters after the game. If we play with this intensitynot that we played greatwell be all right.
The Cavaliers bounced back from the UConn defeat with consecutive home non-conference victories over Radford (95-47) on December 28, Delaware (76-66) on December 30, and Loyola (67-61) on January 2. Staples scored a career-high 30 points in the Delaware game, which also marked Alexanders return to action. Alexander finished his first game back with 15 points in 25 minutes of reserve action.
Virginia resumed ACC play at 19th-ranked Maryland on January 4. The Terps opened up a 42-28 halftime lead en route to a 78-62 victory. Deane led Virginia with 20 points and four assists while Alexander contributed 18 points.
After getting off to an 0-2 start in the ACC, the Cavaliers desperately needed a win as they traveled to Tallahassee for a January 8 showdown with Florida State. Virginia rallied for a 64-61 victory behind a game-high 26 points from Alexander and Ducharmes game-high nine rebounds.
UVa also got an unexpected boost from Hunter. Playing in front of his hometown crowd for the first time in his collegiate career, Hunter entered the game with 7:44 remaining and UVa trailing 51-49. He then scored five points over the next 35 seconds as the Cavaliers jumped in front 64-61.
That was amazing, said Hunter, who entered the game with a total of six points on the season. I never thought that would happen in my wildest dreams.
Later, UVa was clinging to a 62-61 lead when Nolanwho finished the game with 12 points and eight reboundsdunked home the games final basket with 41 seconds remaining.
Im really proud of the way our team played tonight, said Jones. We kept saying we need to play together, hard and smart, and for most of the game, we did just that.
Virginia followed that pivotal win with a 75-63 upset victory over 13th-ranked North Carolina at University Hall on January 11. UVa led 35-20 at halftime after limiting the Tar Heels to 27.6 percent field goal shooting in the first half. The Cavs maintained a double-digit advantage for most of the second half until a UNC basket with 1:57 left cut the lead to 66-60. On the very next possession, however, Deane fed Ducharme for a dunk as UVa outscored the Tar Heels 9-3 the rest of the way. The win improved UVas record to 11-4 overall, 2-2 ACC. UNC fell to 0-3 in the ACC, its worst league start in 44 years.
Nolan turned in one of the best all-around performances of his career, finishing with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Rounding out UVas double-figure scorers were Alexander (15 points, five assists) Staples (13 points) and Deane (11 points, six assists). Metheney provided an important lift off the Cavalier bench, posting five points, three rebounds, four blocked shots and two steals in 15 minutes of action against the Tar Heels. The reserve center also helped hold UNCs Serge Zwikker to 11 points on five-of-12 shooting.
The Cavaliers continued their stellar play four days later as they nearly pulled off an upset of second-ranked Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. UVa led 30-29 at the half and 54-48 with 5:03 remaining. The Deacons stormed back, however, tying the game at 54 on a tip-in with 2:00 remaining. All-American center Tim Duncan put the Deacs up to stay after that on a short bank shot with 1:05 left. Duncan added a short jumper in the waning seconds to give Wake a 58-54 victory. Alexander paced the Cavaliers with 18 points.
Virginia was limited to 38.5 percent field goal shooting in a 78-59 loss at 13th-ranked Duke on January 18. The Cavaliers played without Deane, who was suspended for one game by the NCAA after playing against Wake Forest on Jan. 15 without being enrolled in the required 12 semester hours. Deane was only enrolled in 11 hours at the time. The violation occurred due to a misinterpretation of NCAA rules by the UVa athletic departments academic affairs office. With its floor general sidelined, Virginia never got in sync against the Blue Devils despite 17 points from Staples and a career-high 12 rebounds from Marcaccini.
UVa returned home to host Georgia Tech on January 22. The Cavaliers shot 53.8 percent from the field and withstood a 29-point effort from the Yellow Jackets Matt Harpring to prevail 68-64. The victory was UVas 12th of the season, matching its win total of 1995-96. Deane hit a pivotal jumper and added two free throws in the games final 44 seconds to seal the win. Nolan led UVa in scoring with 16 points, followed by Deane with 13, Alexander with 12 and Staples with 10. The victory was tainted, however, when Alexander re-injured his left ankle with 10 seconds left in the game and had to be helped off the floor. He would end up missing the next two games before returning in a reserve role against Florida State.
The Cavaliers won their second consecutive ACC game with a 56-50 victory over N.C. State in Charlottesville. Staples accounted for nearly half of the UVa scoring, finishing with 27 points. He connected on seven of 13 three-pointers.
Five Cavaliers scored in double figures in an 83-66 win over in-state rival Richmond on January 30. Deane paced Virginia with 23 points while Ducharme added 14.
Virginia ended its four-game homestand on February 1 with a 73-60 decision over Florida State. Deane and Staples each finished with 20 points while Nolan contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds. With the win, UVa climbed to 15-6 overall, 5-4 ACC.
UVas four-game winning streak ended with a 66-53 loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets were sparked by a 23-point, 12-rebound performance by center Eddie Elisma. Nolan was the only Cavalier in double-digits, finishing with 20 points on eight-of-14 shooting.
Virginia suffered its worst margin of defeat two days later, losing to North Carolina 81-57 in Chapel Hill. Nolan led UVa with 19 points as the Cavaliers fell to 15-8 overall, 5-6 in the ACC.
Things went from bad to bizarre in Virginias next game against sixth-ranked Duke at U-Hall on February 11. Although Jones and his squad knew it would take an exceptional effort to upend the 19-5 Blue Devils, no one was prepared for the chain of events that led to the Cavaliers most devastating loss of the season.
For the most part it was a classic ACC struggle. The biggest lead of the game was six (by Virginia several times, including a 31-25 advantage at the half). With 2:11 remaining in the game, the Cavaliers went up 60-56 after Dersch converted a three-point play on a layup and foul shot. Dukes Jeff Capel made four of six foul shots over the next two minutes to knot the game at 60 with 11 seconds left to play. Virginia regained the lead 61-60 when Nolan hit the second of two free throws with just five seconds remaining.
Thats when things got strange. While Nolan was at the foul line, Dersch was at the scorers table waiting to go in for Nolan if the power forward made his second foul shot. Jones had planned to insert Dersch into the game to defend on the inbounds play. When Nolans second foul shot went in, however, the officials never motioned Dersch into the game. Instead, Duke immediately inbounded the ball to guard Steve Wojciechowski who dribbled the length of the floor and was fouled by Nolan on a missed layup.
With 2.2 seconds still showing on the clock, play stopped for nearly five minutes as an irate Jones deliberated with officials over why Dersch wasnt allowed in the game. After reviewing a television replay, the officials claimed the oversight was not a correctable error and reset the clock to just 0.7 seconds remaining. Wojciechowski then stepped to the foul line and sank two free throws to give the Blue Devils a 62-61 win.
Later asked why Dersch wasnt allowed in the game after Nolans made free throw, referee Rick Hartzel said, We didnt see a sub there, we didnt hear a horn.
The outcome overshadowed a 16-point night from Nolan and a 12-point effort from Alexander, who returned to the starting lineup for the first time in five games.
I feel badly for our players, said Jones afterwards. Tonight, they found a way against a very good Duke team to win a basketball game, and it was taken away from them.
Two days later, ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan announced that the Duke-Virginia officiating crew would serve a one-game suspension due to a serious game management error.
Virginia traveled to Littlejohn Coliseum to face seventh-ranked Clemson on February 15. The Cavaliers overcame a seven-point halftime deficit to pull even at 62 with 2:33 remaining in the game on a layup by Staples. Clemson outscored UVa 9-3 in the closing minutes, however, en route to a 71-65 victory. Alexander scored a game-high 21 points to lead the Cavaliers.
UVa snapped its four-game losing streak with a 55-46 decision over N.C. State in Raleigh. Staples connected on seven three-point field goals for 21 first-half points as Virginia raced out to a 36-17 halftime lead. Staples finished with a game-high 26 points, while Nolan grabbed nine rebounds and Deane dished out seven assists. The victory improved Virginias record to 16-10 overall, 6-8 ACC.
Virginia hosted fourth-ranked Wake Forest on February 22. In an all-too-familiar scenario, the Cavaliers were in position to win near the end of the game but came up short in a 66-60 loss. UVa took its only lead of the second half 55-54 when Staples made two free throws with 4:14 remaining. Wake regained the lead for good, however, on a hook shot by Duncan who finished with 21 points and 23 rebounds. Alexander and Staples led UVa in scoring with 13 points apiece. Ducharme finished with 12 points and five rebounds, while Nolan added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
With their NCAA playoff hopes in jeopardy, Virginia rose to the occasion with a 58-57 win over Virginia Tech on February 25 at the Richmond Coliseum. UVa shot 56.1 percent from the field, bolstered by 19 points from Staples (on 7-of-10 shooting) and 18 points from Alexander (7-of-13).
There was a lot of pressure coming into this game," Jones said. "[The team] just kept hanging in there. I thought they did an outstanding job of finding a way to win.
Virginia hosted Maryland in its final regular season game on March 2. Rallying for an 81-74 victory over the 16th-ranked Terrapins, the Cavaliers left little doubt they belonged in the NCAA Tournament. After trailing 61-59 with 5:26 remaining in the game, the Cavaliers went on a 15-6 run to go up 74-67 with less than a minute left to play. We just did not want to give up, said Deane, one of three Cavalier seniors playing their final game at University Hall, along with Robinson and Walton. I gave all I had and my teammates did too.
Deane scored a team-high 18 points and handed out eight assists. Ducharme totaled 15 points and five blocked shotsboth career highs.
UVa finished the 1996-97 regular season with an 18-11 record, 7-9 in the ACC.
Next up for Virginia was red-hot fifth-ranked North Carolina in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals in Greensboro. Seeded third in the tournament, the Tar Heels had won nine in a row dating back to the end of January. The sixth-seeded Cavaliers kept the game close most of the way before falling 78-68. Alexander finished with a season-high 27 points, including 19 in the second half.
The Cavaliers found out two days later that they were headed to Salt Lake City, Utah, to play Iowa on March 13 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This is a great reward for the players and their effort, and for sticking through it, said Jones.
Virginias appearance in the NCAA Tournament would be short-lived, however, as eighth-seeded Iowa overpowered the ninth-seeded Cavaliers 73-60. The Hawkeyes led by as many as 22 in the second half and outrebounded UVa 44-27 for the game. Deane provided one of Virginias few bright spots, finishing with 24 points.
Clearly this was not the way Jones hoped the 1996-97 season would end. Still, he tried to keep everthing in perspective. This year wasnt an easy year, he said, but in my position, youve got to keep sight of the big picture. All were feeling now is disappointment. Hopefully, the players will be able to look back and see that it was a good season. Not a great season, but a good season.