Feb. 27, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When the final horn sounded around 9 o'clock on Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, it signaled more than the 12th consecutive victory for the UVa men's basketball team. It meant the Cavaliers were finally free to talk about the game fans have been buzzing about for months.
"We got this win, and now it's time to focus on Syracuse," Virginia senior Akil Mitchell said after his penultimate game at John Paul Jones Arena, a 65-40 rout of Miami.
In 2012-13, the Hurricanes swept the ACC's regular-season and tournament championships. The ACC tourney is a couple of weeks away, but the Wahoos can capture the league's regular-season title with a victory in their final home game.
At 4 p.m. Saturday, ACC leader UVa (24-5, 15-1) hosts second-place Syracuse (26-2, 13-2) at sold-out JPJ. In the latest Associated Press poll, the `Hoos are No. 12 and the Orange No. 4.
"You have to play a very high level to compete with a team like that," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "But to be in this spot is terrific. We're at our place, and we know we'll have to do certain things well, but the formula doesn't change for us, just because there's so much excitement around it. We're not going to be different. We're just going to have to be as good as we can."
As they drove to the arena on Wednesday night, Bennett said, his son, Eli, started chanting, " `Cuse ... `Cuse.' "
"I was a little mad at first," Bennett recalled, smiling, "and then I said, `All right, he's only 11, I guess I should give him a break.' "
Bennett was confident his players, unlike his son, would not look past the Hurricanes (14-14, 5-10), and his faith was rewarded. The Cavaliers took the lead for good on a three-point play by freshman point guard London Perrantes with 11:42 left in the first half.
"We weren't looking too far ahead," senior guard Joe Harris said. "Everybody was very focused on Miami. We knew they're a very good team, and that's the last thing that we would want to have happen, pick up a loss here at home going into that game against Syracuse."
It wasn't difficult, redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said, to stay focused on the present.
"We've had struggles with Miami in the past, and everybody knows that," Brogdon said. "So we knew we had to come in and really impose our will at the beginning. We knew this wasn't going to be a team that just rolled over."
UVa's offense was ragged at times, but its defensive intensity never waned Wednesday night.
Miami made only four field goals in the second half. For the game, the `Canes shot 26.1 percent from the floor.
"We were in a hole that we couldn't dig ourselves out of," said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, a former UVa assistant. "The credit goes to them. Virginia makes you take difficult shots."
At the other end, Perrantes was perfect from the floor (5 for 5). He hit four 3-pointers and finished with 15 points -- both career highs -- and added four assists and three rebounds.
Still, Perrantes' play "doesn't tell the story," Larranaga said. "The story is their defense. We had 20 at halftime and 20 in the second half."
In its previous two games, the `Canes had made 16 of 31 shots from 3-point range. They were 0 for 12 from beyond the arc Wednesday night.
"We worked real hard this week on our closeouts, trying to get to shooters with high hands," Bennett said. "A couple open ones they had they just missed, but I think they were mostly contested ... That's really an important stat for us."
The victory was Bennett's 100th in his five seasons as UVa. His first team went 15-16, his second 16-15. In 2011-12, the `Hoos posted a 22-10 record and advanced to the NCAA tournament. In 2012-13, they finished 23-12 after losing in the NIT quarterfinals.
And now, at 24 wins and counting, they can capture the ACC regular-season title outright for only the second time in school history.
That, Bennett said, is a "big deal to me," and his players feel the same way.
"It would be huge," Harris said. "That's the reason why we came here. That's one of the main goals at the beginning of every season."
Harris, Mitchell and Thomas Rogers are the Cavaliers' seniors, and they came into this week knowing they would play only twice more at JPJ. (Virginia closes the regular season March 9 at Maryland.)
In his pregame remarks, Bennett said, he told his players he hoped the program would be in this position again. But "for sure this is the last time that Thomas, Joe and Akil will ever come down this road," Bennett told the team, "so let's make the most of it by being as ready as we can, physically and mentally, for every challenge, every opportunity that's in front of us, [starting] with Miami."
The players responded. Brogdon, like Perrantes, scored 15 points, and Harris added 11. Mitchell pulled down a game-high nine rebounds. Redshirt sophomore big Anthony Gill contributed nine points in 21 minutes off the bench, and another reserve, sophomore forward Evan Nolte, took a pass from Harris, who had a season-high five assists, and knocked down a crowd-pleasing trey in the second half.
It all added up to UVa's 17th consecutive ACC home victory, which broke the school record set from 1980 to '82.
"I think it speaks to Coach Bennett and the maturity of our team," Brogdon said, "for us to come out, even after we got a lot of [praise] for our record and things that we've done, the success we've had, to come out and still establish ourselves and play good basketball."
Nobody played better than Perrantes. For much of the season, he's been content to set up his teammates, but he made three crucial 3-pointers last week in Virginia's comeback win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and he torched Miami on Wednesday night.
Perrantes said he takes what opposing defenses give him. The `Canes gave him open looks, and he capitalized.
"Good for him," Bennett said. "He played a very good game, and you need that. We've talked about that. It's been well-documented: different guys, different times on this team is what has made it as effective as it's been."
Larranaga said: "We were concerned about Joe Harris and Malcom Brogdon, but when Perrantes starts making those shots, we thought, `Oh, whoa.' But he played a terrific game and is a great player, like Tyler Ennis. They are both two of the best point guards in the country."
Ennis, of course, is Syracuse's floor leader and one of the nation's premier freshmen.
"He's heck of a player," Bennett said, "but I think our point guard's a heck of a player, too."
Perrantes grew up in Los Angeles, and Ennis is from Canada. But they have much in common.
"They seem unflappable," Bennett said. "You watch them and they have that look. They're just very calm, cool and collected ... They let the game come [to them], and they don't seem to get sped up in their mind or on the floor. I just see some similar things that way."
Perrantes said he's watched Syracuse on TV every opportunity he's had this season. The more familiar he could be with Orange's vaunted 2-3 zone, the better, Perrantes believes, and he wanted to learn everything he could about Ennis.
"I have the utmost respect for [Syracuse] and Tyler Ennis," Perrantes said. "So it should be a crazy atmosphere on Saturday."
Harris said: "I know the fans and everybody's been really excited for this game for a while, so the atmosphere should be great, and we're looking forward to it."
UVa announced in late November that the game was sold out. From the day the Cavaliers' 2013-14 schedule was announced, Bennett's players have felt excitement building for the Orange's visit.
"All season," Mitchell said. "But the time's here now. The time's here to focus on them. All this week, everybody's been tweeting, and the media and everyone's talking about it. Miami was the focus [for the team], but now it's time for Syracuse."
Brogdon said: "As a player you try to block out the distractions, block out the publicity the game is getting. Because I really feel like it's not about that. At the end of the day it's just another basketball game. We gotta go in and play our game, regardless of the results, and impose our will from the beginning."
The Senior Day ceremony at JPJ will start around 3:45 p.m. Saturday. Mitchell, Harris, Rogers and student-managers Chelsea Mangino, Luke Ford and Mikey Carpenter will be recognized.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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