A family affair
Dick Bennett’s presence underscores magnitude of ACC Tournament for Virginia
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Dick Bennett, who rarely watches or attends Virginia games, promised his son Tony that he would watch the Cavaliers’ ACC Tournament opener against Florida State.
After Virginia’s 64-51 win Friday against the Seminoles, Tony Bennett called his dad, as he always does. But when he asked the elder Bennett if he watched the game, he was met with a surprising answer.
Dick Bennett also promised that if Virginia won its first game, he would travel from his home in Wisconsin to Greensboro for the semifinals.
“I said, ‘Okay, are you coming then because we won?,’” Tony Bennett said. “He said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘If you make it to the championship, I’ll come.’”
But who else but Dick Bennett strolled into the team hotel at 9 a.m. Saturday, in time to deliver his message to the Cavaliers — today’s game was going to be a “blue collar knuckle-buster.”
“I think [Dick’s visit] means a lot to him,” senior guard Joe Harris said. “He’ll tell us that all the time about how, obviously it’s his dad … but at the same time it’s his mentor from a basketball standpoint. So whenever he is around, he’s so wise; … [he] always has something significant to tell individually to one of us or just collectively to the team.”
That Bennett’s dad would attend Saturday’s game underscores what a momentous weekend this year’s ACC Tournament has been for the Virginia men’s basketball program.
For the first time since 1994, the Cavaliers will play for the ACC Tournament crown. Though the program has been to the game six times, it hasn’t left with the trophy since 1976 — its one and only conference tournament title.
Virginia legend Wally Walker was honored as the MVP that year after scoring 21 points and pulling down seven rebounds in the finals against Dean Smith’s top-seeded North Carolina squad. Still the only Cavalier to ever win the ACC Tournament MVP award in more than 60 years, Walker texted Bennett a request.
“He said, ‘We want some company,’” Bennett said.
First however, Virginia would have to get past Pitt.
In the first meeting between the two, neither led by more than four points. Saturday’s game was similarly contested, with Virginia taking an eight-point lead with 9:30 to play, only to be held scoreless for the next six minutes — the Cavaliers were held without a field goal for eight minutes down the stretch in their regular season meeting.
The Panthers cut the deficit to 49-46 with less than one minute to play and as the shot clock wound down on Virginia, Pitt sophomore guard James Robinson stripped sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, laying the ball in on the other end. Robinson took contact from senior forward Akil Mitchell, though no foul was called.
After sophomore forward Anthony Gill made a pair of free throws, sophomore guard Justin Anderson blocked Robinson’s potential game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds remaining.
A little later than usual, but Anderson again proved to be the spark Virginia needed. Once more, the defense came through in the clutch — the hallmark of a Bennett-coached team.
“In four years I guess you could say we’ve been bred to really enjoy playing that knuckle-busting style of defense,” Mitchell said. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to make that run to pull away, so we had to lock down and get stops. For a team like [Pitt] you just have to crank it out.”
Now, before the Cavaliers can join the likes of Walker and the 1976 team, a rematch against one of just two teams to defeat them in ACC play awaits.
Bennett is tasked with matching clipboards against a man in Mike Krzyzewski who is 13-6 in ACC Tournament championship games, and against a program that is 15-3 against Virginia in the ACC Tournament and seeking its 20th conference title. Duke has taken home 10 of the last 15 ACC Tournament trophies.
Yet Virginia presents as much of a challenge for Duke. The Cavaliers have come a long way since that January night in Durham, particularly Gill and freshman point guard London Perrantes.
“Tony’s done a sensational job,” Krzyzewski said. “What he’s done is he’s built a program. … Those kids on that team have great character, and it’s obvious that they don’t care who scores, as long as Virginia scores.”
The Blue Devils have four players that average at least 10.0 points per game in conference play, but none perhaps more dangerous than freshman phenom forward Jabari Parker. Parker leads the conference in rebounds per game at 8.8 and is second in points at 19.2.
At Cameron Indoor against Virginia, Parker opened each half with a 3-pointer, but finished with just eight points — his second-lowest total of the season.
“All I remember [about Virginia] is us winning and [sophomore guard] Rasheed [Sulaimon] coming through with a big play,” Parker said. “A lot of games aren’t going to be won by me, but by my teammates and they pull through.”
Mitchell’s ability to manage both locking down Parker and helping on the weak side simultaneously was crucial in the first meeting and figures to play a large role in the ACC title bout between the two founding members. If Parker can score easy buckets inside like he did against NC State Saturday, the Cavaliers could be in for a long afternoon.
Sunday may very well be another “blue collar knuckle-buster,” a game that Virginia won’t win going away, but will have to grind out to the final buzzer.
And that’s just fine with the Cavaliers.
“Over time we gradually have just gotten used to what Coach wants out of us, his philosophy, mindset — it’s been ingrained in us,” Harris said. “As Akil was saying earlier, a knuckle buster type game and how we enjoy it, that’s genuine. … We’re a defensive-minded team and that’s how we believe we’ll win games and that’s what we’ve come to believe over time.”
Come 3 p.m. Sunday, a new ACC Tournament champion will be anointed. Tony Bennett has the opportunity to do something his father never did at Wisconsin or Washington State — win a major conference championship. Surely Dick will be on hand to watch the game, right?
“I don’t know if he’ll be here tomorrow or not,” Bennett said, laughing. “It’s 50-50.”