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'Hoos Traveling Into Hostile Territory

Joe Harris

March 7, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- In an arena that seats nearly 18,000, the attendance Tuesday night was announced as 10,517, and that figure was generous. Still, that was for Virginia Tech's visit to the University of Maryland's Comcast Center.

The scene promises to be much different Sunday in College Park.

At noon, in a game CBS will televise nationally, No. 5 UVa (25-5 overall, 16-1 ACC) meets Maryland (16-14, 8-9) at the Comcast Center. For the Terrapins, who will join the Big Ten this summer, this will be their final ACC regular-season game, and tickets sold out this week. The crowd will include former Maryland coaches Gary Williams and Lefty Driesell.

"It's going to be electric, and they're going to be ready to play," Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford said Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena. "The crazy thing is, we could end up playing them again [Friday] in the ACC tournament."

The Cavaliers have clinched the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament, and they'll face the 8-9 winner in the first quarterfinal Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum. Win or lose Sunday, the Wahoos are locks for the NCAA tourney, but that doesn't mean they'll lack motivation in the regular-season finale.

 

 

"This means everything to us," senior big man Akil Mitchell said Thursday. "It's a rivalry game, another chance to get better, another opportunity to step on the floor. For us, the season's not over. We still got a lot of ball left to play."

A victory would make the `Hoos the first team in ACC history to win 17 conference games in a season, and it would extend their winning streak to 14 games. Moreover, head coach Tony Bennett's seniors -- Mitchell, Joe Harris and Thomas Rogers -- would end their college careers unbeaten on the road against UVa's biggest rivals.

Virginia has won four straight games at Virginia Tech's Cassell Coliseum. On each on its past three trips to Comcast Center, UVa has come away with a victory. Overall, the Cavaliers have won six straight games against Maryland, their longest winning streak in a series that started Jan. 24, 1913.

"That'd be a pretty special thing if I could look back at my career here and say that we hadn't lost at either of those places," Harris said Thursday. "But it's going to be a tough environment, a tough game. They're a very talented team, and it'll be a difficult game for us.

"Every time I've ever played [in College Park], no matter what the records are, or the situation, it seems like they always have a very raucous and intense crowd. They have one of the better student sections in the country."

The Terps pulled away for a 64-47 win over the Hokies on Tuesday night, a much-needed boost of confidence for a team that had lost four of its previous five games.

"It's good for their morale, but had they lost that game, it wouldn't have mattered," Williford said. "With us coming in there Sunday, the last regular-season game for them in the ACC, they're going to be jacked to play us."

The Cavaliers haven't played since last Saturday, when they knocked off then-No. 4 Syracuse 75-56 before a deafening crowd at sold-out JPJ. The win clinched the ACC regular-season title for UVa, and Bennett's players couldn't forget the game if they tried.

"I had to turn my phone off," Mitchell said. "I was getting all kinds of phone calls from people I've never heard from."

While eating lunch Thursday at the Observatory Hill dining hall, Mitchell said, four or five of his fellow students asked to have photographs taken with him. Harris said he's never seen the University so hoops-crazy.

"It kind of reminded me a little bit of the Duke game last year," Harris said, "when people were just so jazzed after game, but even more so, professors, people that I didn't even know really followed basketball. Everybody's very excited and happy [about the season]."

Bennett, who gave the team Wednesday off, worked the `Hoos hard in practice Thursday and Friday. He knows how much Sunday's game means to Maryland, and Bennett reminded his players repeatedly that "soundness and toughness" would be required for UVa to prevail again in College Park.

"This is where games are won or lost, on the glass," Bennett yelled Friday during a rebounding drill at JPJ.

The long break between games isn't ideal, Harris said Thursday, "but obviously you can't change the schedule. It's good that we have some time to get some tough practices in. Tuesday's practice was almost like a preseason practice. It was pretty long and hard."

And that was fine with the players.

"We're happy that we had the win against Syracuse," Harris said, "but we need to stay locked in and focused on the bigger picture. We know we have bigger goals for ourselves than just what we've gotten up to this point in the season. It would be terrible if we were just satisfied and settled for what we've accomplished so far."

This will be the second meeting between UVa and Maryland this season. The first was Feb. 10 at JPJ, where the Cavaliers won 61-53. After Virginia built an 11-point lead with five minutes to play, the Terps rallied but never got closer than four.

Williford, who scouted the Terps, remains as wary of them as he was last month.

"Great offensive team," Williford said. "They're still mixing up the defense -- man, 1-3-1, the three-quarter-court diamond press -- but from an offensive standpoint, they're very scary. They have multiple guys that can go get their own shots, that can score the ball."

Maryland's threats include 6-5 swingman Dez Wells (14.7 ppg), 6-1 sophomore Seth Allen (12.8), 6-8 sophomore Jake Layman (11.7), 6-9 redshirt junior Evan Smotrycz (10.9) and 6-6 junior Nick Faust (9.7). Among them they've attempted 598 shots from beyond the 3-point arc this season.

"For us, I think it's all about how we defend," Williford said. "Are we ready to come out and defend?"

The Terps, Harris said, are "so capable of just going off, and they've showed that in spurts this season. On any given night it seems like a different guy can go off. And if the team is hot, playing at home, the crowd gets energized. It'll be a tough environment, and they're just a tough team to play against."

When Williford played at UVa, in the `90s, the Terrapins' home was Cole Field House, and the ACC consisted of nine schools. That era is still special to him.

"I am a purist when it comes to the ACC," Williford said.

In 2014-15, the conference's 15 schools will include seven former members of the Big East: Boston College, Louisville, Miami, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

"Crazy to think that Maryland won't be in the league, but there's nothing I can do about it," Williford said. "It's the nature of [college] athletics. But it'll be different not having Maryland in the ACC. I wish them well. It was a great rivalry.

"We had some really good games against the Joe Smith teams. I remember watching Lenny Bias as a kid and Adrian Branch and some of those teams. Lots of tradition there. Sad to see `em go, but the new ACC's gonna be pretty good."

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Jeff White

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jwhite@virginia.edu

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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