For the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, an extraordinary season ended at 12:30 a.m. Saturday, when Justin Anderson’s desperation heave from about 75 feet away fell short of its target at Madison Square Garden.
The season – Tony Bennett’s fifth as the Cavaliers’ coach – had started Nov. 8 at John Paul Jones Arena. Virginia won that night in Charlottesville, and many more victories followed for a team to which fans became fiercely devoted.
After some out-of-conference missteps, U.Va. established itself in the new year as the class of the ACC. The Wahoos ran away with the league’s regular-season title, winning it outright for the first time since 1981, and then captured the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976.
Two wins in the NCAA tournament followed and sent Virginia to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995. This was heady stuff for the ‘Hoos, whose program was irrelevant nationally when Bennett took over in 2009, and they weren’t ready for it to end. But Michigan State University has NCAA title aspirations, too, and the Cavaliers could not conquer the Spartans at the Garden.
In a game that started at 10:16 p.m. Friday, top-seeded U.Va. lost 61-59 to fourth-seeded Michigan State in the East Region semifinals. The Cavaliers erased a 10-point deficit in the first half and a seven-point deficit in the second. In the final 90 seconds, though, the Spartans separated themselves just enough to prevail in front of an orange-dominated crowd of 19,314.
“We beat a hell of a team,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said.
Michigan State (29-8) advances to meet No. 7 seed Connecticut (29-8) in the East Region final Sunday at 2:20 p.m. The Cavaliers (30-7), who tied the school record for victories in a season, fly home to Charlottesville on Saturday.
Tears fell in the Virginia locker room after the game, but Bennett and his players were able to keep the loss – and the season – in perspective.
To play at the Garden, senior big man Akil Mitchell said, was “a dream come true. I’m proud of these guys for the way they fought all year. … It’s been a fun ride.”
Defeats stings, but that’s life, Bennett noted at his postgame press conference. “We had so many good things happen this year,” he said. “Unbelievable things. This is part of it. You got to take the hard, and not that this is hard. What a joy it is to play in this setting and to get our program here.”
The program must move on without seniors Joe Harris, Thomas Rogers and Mitchell. Harris and Mitchell, who between them started 268 games, are the only members left of the six-player recruiting class that signed with Virginia in November 2009.
“What they’re about is good,” Bennett said, “and I’m thankful that for four years I got to be a part of watching them grow from boys to men and turn our program around. I always tell them, ‘A desire accomplished is sweet to the soul,’ and they left a legacy that they won’t forget.
“It stings now and it feels empty, and it’s a team you don’t want the season to end because you don’t want to stop coaching them, but I thank God for the opportunity to work with these guys, and they should hold their head high, and they are what’s right about the game of college basketball.”
Harris, a 6-6 guard from Chelan, Wash., leaves as Virginia’s No. 11 all-time leading scorer, with 1,698 points. Mitchell, a 6-8 post player from Charlotte, N.C., finished with 798 rebounds, good for No. 7 on U.Va.’s career list. But the seniors’ impact extended far beyond the court.
“They always put team first, and it’s going to hurt to know that we don’t have those two veterans that are going to lead us the way that we need to be led,” Anderson said. “We have to step up, try to find new leaders, and those guys will definitely be missed.”
To have helped the ’Hoos return to prominence “means everything,” Harris said. “That’s the reason why I wanted to come to school here. I wanted to be a part of establishing a foundation for Virginia basketball and really just set us up at a point where we’re going to have success, and I think that Akil and Tom and I have definitely done that, and it’s extremely rewarding.
“You gotta be extremely grateful and thankful just for having this opportunity to play for the coaches that we have, to play at a school like Virginia, and to be a part of something special like all of this. It’s an unbelievable opportunity, and I’m just extremely thankful for all of it.”
Harris and redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon led the Cavaliers with 17 points apiece against Michigan State. Each hit a 3-pointer as Virginia rallied in the final minute – Harris’ trey made it 56-54 and Brogdon’s 60-59 – but the Spartans, whose lineup is stocked with future NBA players, came through in a frenzied atmosphere Izzo likened to a game in Charlottesville.
After Anderson capped a 7-0 run with a trey that pulled Virginia to 51-51 with 1:48 left, the Spartans answered with five straight points: the first three on a wide-open 3-pointer by 6-10 Adreian Payne, the final two coming on a basket by 6-6 Branden Dawson off a lob from Payne.
Dawson finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds. Payne added 16 points and five rebounds.
“When you’re in a game like this, with this much at stake at this level,” Bennett said, “plays have to be made, whether it’s big shots hit or just a big block or something. They did that. We had a little trouble down the stretch doing that. A couple times we broke down and they made us pay, but they’re used to winning.”
Before a crowd that included such notables as Magic Johnson, Chris Long, Katie Couric, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Cavaliers shook off an uneven first 20 minutes and surged ahead early in the second half.
Virginia went up 40-36 on a putback by freshman point guard London Perrantes with 11:48 remaining, and the Spartans turned the ball over on their next possession. U.Va. fans roared, sensing an opportunity to rattle MSU.
“We were feeling pretty good at that point in time,” Harris said. “We had the momentum on our side. Again, we had a huge following, and our fans have been great for us all year. They really took over the Garden today, which was exciting, and when we had the momentum rolling, it really seemed like they were getting into it. But Michigan State is a very good team, and they don’t let a lot of stuff get to them. They don’t get too high, they don’t get too low. Very similar to us, and they were able to respond to anything that we threw at them.”
With a chance to extend the Cavaliers’ lead to seven, Harris misfired from beyond the arc, and Michigan State responded with seven straight points. The final three came on a trey by reserve guard Travis Trice in transition – the Spartans’ only fast-break points all night.
“There’s a reason why they’ve had such a successful program,” said Ritchie McKay, U.Va.’s associate head coach. “But we’re proud of our guys and the effort they displayed.”
That effort didn’t go unnoticed by Michigan State.
“Virginia is a very, very, very tough team,” Dawson said. “Those guys just never gave up. Coming into this game, Coach, he told us that we better be ready for a dogfight. That’s what it was.”
This will be remembered as a season in which the Cavaliers stayed remarkably healthy. Early in the second half Friday night, however, redshirt sophomore Anthony Gill limped off the court with an injured left ankle, and that proved a significant blow.
After having his ankle retaped, Gill soon returned to the game, but he wasn’t effective. The 6-8, 230-pound forward, who had scored at least 10 points in each of his previous six games, finished with three against Michigan State.
“When Anthony hurt his ankle, we struggled to match their scoring in the post,” McKay said. “So that was difficult for us, because we had to rely on our guards. But our guys fought. We battled. Just came up a little short.”
And so the Spartans moved on, and the ’Hoos were left to reflect on an unforgettable season.
“To play in the Garden was unbelievable, but what made it more special was the team that we have is a special team,” Harris said. “The bond that we have with one another, with our coaches, with our trainer, everyone, it goes down the line, with our managers, everybody is close with one another. And for all of us to experience it together made it such an unbelievable experience, and something that we’ll never forget for the rest of our lives.”
Gill said: “We’re brothers, and we love each other. Regardless of what happens, we’re always going to love each other, we’re always going to be there for one another, and I think that’s what we’ll remember most.”
Cavaliers with eligibility remaining include Brogdon, Gill, Anderson, Perrantes, sophomore center Mike Tobey, sophomore forward Evan Nolte, sophomore guard Teven Jones and junior big man Darion Atkins.
“I think we’re going to do a lot of good things in the future,” Brogdon said.
His teammates, spread out around the locker room, offered similar comments.
“I know it’s hard to look at right now, because it’s still a little raw,” Tobey said. “But I think now that most of us have felt this pain and gone through this process of making this run, we know what we have to do, and we don’t want to feel this again. Now that we have the experience, I think it’s really going to pay off in the end.”
Brogdon said: “I think it puts us on the map, puts Coach Bennett and Virginia basketball on the map.”
Not long after the game ended, Gov. McAuliffe spoke for many in a message he posted on his Twitter account: Thank you Tony Bennett & @UVAMensHoops for an amazing season. Your Commonwealth is proud of you. #Wahoowa.