A momentous afternoon
Like astrology, Greek life recruitment or determining the quantity of licks needed to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop, assigning one “defining moment” to an entire game or season is an imprecise art. There are pivotal moments in every game, instances that flip the script or alter the narrative. But rarely does a single moment capture the nuance or complexity involved in answering the two questions sportswriters primarily address: What happened, and how much does it matter?
So it is unusual that Virginia’s comprehensive 56-36 plastering of Florida State Saturday — in which the Cavaliers held the Seminoles to fewer points than the Florida State football team averaged in 2012 — featured two such defining moments.
The first moment occurred with about three minutes remaining in the first half. After freshmen Evan Nolte and Justin Anderson swatted point-blank attempts from Florida State reserve center Michael Ojo, whose 7-foot-1-inch frame made the sizable Nolte and Anderson look like Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, senior point guard Jontel Evans hastened down the court with the rebound before feeding Anderson for a left corner trey. Anderson obliged with Virginia’s seventh 3-pointer of the afternoon, propelling the Cavaliers to a 33-13 lead and sending the John Paul Jones Arena crowd — 12,303 strong — into hysteria.
From my experience as a sports fan and from listening extensively to the wisdom of Phil Simms, I’ve discovered that — you might want to write this down — good defense and offense usually lead to good results. What rendered that particular sequence so illuminating, however, was that it highlighted the often-unheeded correlation between suffocating defensive play and scoring points — a correlation Virginia must exploit to ascend the ACC standings.
Even before Saturday, Bennett’s squad had established itself as a defensive juggernaut. The Cavaliers have yielded 50.6 points per contest, trailing only the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin nationwide, and they have stifled opponents by forcing contested outside shots and playing at a glacially slow pace to limit possessions. Virginia ratcheted up the intensity Saturday, forcing 12 Florida State turnovers in the first half alone and holding its opponents to one-for-15 from 3-point range overall. And though the Seminoles handled the ball more sloppily than Brett Favre handles retirements, Bennett and company deserve recognition for their most relentless and thorough defensive showing of the season.
Stunning displays from Evans and Anderson — on that late first-half exchange and throughout the game — helped Virginia parlay its smothering D into enough offensive output to ensure victory. Looking sprightlier than he has all season on his broken-ish right foot, Evans routinely weaved down the court off Florida State misses and turnovers and found open teammates on the perimeter. Said teammates shot seven-of-nine from beyond the arc in that pulsating first 20 minutes, with junior guard Joe Harris hitting three-of-four mostly wide open looks and finishing with a game-high 17 points overall. And Anderson played with a swagger we had not yet seen this season, a reckless abandon that enabled him to block a giant on one end and drain a 3 on the other.
Admittedly, 13 fast break points and 50 percent field goal shooting are somewhat anomalous for a Bennett-coached team: The second period, in which the Cavaliers attempted seven fewer shots and mustered no transition points, is more indicative of a Virginia team that has averaged an ACC-low 53.2 points per game in conference play. Yet Saturday’s tour-de-force display, far from an aberration, was the manifestation of a cycle that exists exclusively in basketball: that in which strong defense leads to prolific offense, which subsequently re-energizes the defense. What fans regard as separate aspects of basketball, in fact, run most smoothly when they build off each other. When a team can master that harmony, as Virginia did Saturday, basketball becomes less grueling sport and more soaring symphony. Anderson’s block and 3-pointer was simply the crescendo an eager, exhilarated crowd was expecting.
If that first “defining” moment was musical in quality, the second brought the record to a screeching halt. Technically, Florida State’s Terrence Shannon lay motionless for more than 10 minutes real time after injuring his neck in a collision with Nolte’s hip with about four minutes to go in the contest. But the fearful uncertainty about what exactly had happened to Shannon, on the heels of a week in which sports stories defied all reason or reality, suspended spectators in one tense, guilt-ridden moment. Injuries such as Shannon’s scare us not only because of the threat to the player’s welfare but also because they remind us that sport, despite its theatrical bent, stubbornly exists in the real world. In a climate where iconic cyclists try to control their own narratives and star football players milk publicity from relationships no more authentic than my fifth-grade fling with Hermione Granger, it’s easy to equate sports to some pseudo-fictional narrative, a superhero movie we can watch unfold with our own eyes and in which we can even participate. This blend of realism and narrative fuels sports’ appeal, rendering them a drama with themes we can apply to our own lives. It also means, though wins and losses are arbitrary, real consequences affect the sports world, too.
Shannon, thankfully, suffered only a neck sprain — his immobility on the court stemmed from medical experts’ caution rather than loss of consciousness of works. Because of those 10 fretful minutes, however, what would have merely constituted a resounding Virginia triumph became a testament to sports’ dual nature: as both compelling narrative and real experience. And so Virginia’s men’s basketball team has two lessons to draw from its most important game of the season, two moments to contemplate in the quest for a second consecutive NCAA tournament berth. The first involves turning basketball into art; the second, recognizing sports as an art necessarily confined by reality. Whether these moments will ultimately define the remainder of the 2013 season, like the exact number of licks required to reach the Tootsie Roll, is anyone’s guess.