Climbing the ladder
As the final seconds ticked off the clock and No. 12 Virginia sealed the ACC regular season title with a 75-56 win against No. 4 Syracuse, the Cavalier players dutifully headed for the locker room. For a team coached by the unflappable Tony Bennett, it was just another win — its 13th straight win — but there was still more work to do.
But even for Bennett, the hundreds of fans who had stormed the court were too much to ignore. He indulged the crowd, leading his players back out onto the court to revel in their victory — at least a little bit.
As the Cavaliers headed out to cut down the nets, two of the team’s seniors, guard Joe Harris and forward Akil Mitchell, were carrying the ladder. It was their last game at Virginia, and they celebrated in style.
“We weren’t really expecting to cut down the nets,” Harris said. “It was pretty cool. Some of the guys talked about it before the game, but I said, ‘No way we’re cutting down the nets,’ because coach Bennett will just want us to start getting ready for Maryland.”
Harris and Mitchell were two of Bennett’s first true recruits at Virginia, and they came into a program that had gone 15-16 in Bennett’s first season — the team’s eighth season in nine years with a losing conference record. Virginia basketball was far removed from its glory days, and Bennett was frank to his recruits.
“When we first got here, my first year, coach Bennett talked about how it was going to be tough when we first came in,” Harris said. “I think he said to the entire freshman class, ‘You’ve got to learn to lose together before you can win together.’ We came here, we struggled, we had glimpses of success, but not a whole lot of anything that was sustained. We really believed that we could turn this thing around.”
Virginia would go 16-15 that season with another losing ACC record — one small step up the ladder — and two of Bennett’s first class would leave after the season. Two more would transfer midway through Bennett’s third season, leaving just Harris, Mitchell and walk-on guard Thomas Rogers — who would earn a scholarship going into this season — as the remaining players from Bennett’s first class.
The pair wasn’t affected by their classmates’ departures. The team finished 22-10 and made the NCAA Tournament in Bennett’s third year, and Harris and Mitchell were as committed as ever.
“It was unfortunate that a lot of the guys decided to leave,” Harris said. “But the ones that stuck it out — Akil and I and Thomas — and then all the guys that wanted to be a part of coach Bennett’s program, they really believed in him, and we knew that we had a chance to achieve something great in our time here.”
After going 23-12 in Bennett’s fourth year, Virginia entered Bennett’s fifth season with one of the deepest teams the Cavaliers had seen in years, with Harris and Mitchell as the leaders in their fourth and final year.
The rest, to use the old cliché, is history. Virginia entered its final home game 15 conference wins later with a chance to win the ACC and complete Bennett’s radical transformation.
The sold-out crowd was waiting on Senior Night to celebrate the duo that had played 252 combined games for Virginia.
Harris ranks second in Cavalier history in 3-pointers and was an All-ACC first team selection last season. Mitchell picked up third team All-ACC honors last year and is in the top-10 in the ACC in rebounds this year. The hearty ovation the two Virginia stalwarts received was well earned, but Bennett made sure it didn’t go to their head.
“Coach Bennett kind of made sure that he told us it wasn’t a big deal,” Mitchell said. “It’s for our families, for the fans and stuff like that, but we still have so much work to do. There are too many games, too much basketball left to get all caught up in the emotions and the hype.”
Mitchell certainly didn’t seem affected. He carried the team early against the Orange, getting into the paint to help break up the Syracuse zone defense — he finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
Harris started off slow — he had just one point at halftime — and ultimately finished with seven points, four assists and three rebounds. It wasn’t the flashiest game for either player, but as the team led by 19 points over a top-five team in the final minute, Bennett paused to think of his remaining seniors.
“I took a moment to give thanks, because I can remember when we had a bigger group,” Bennett said. “But those guys came in and we just painted a picture to them and the vision was, ‘Come help us turn this program around.’ … That was the vision and that was what Joe remembered. He said, ‘I don’t care this year if I’m not getting as many shots. I just want to win; I want to turn this program around and I’ll get my chances later.’”
With 16 conference wins, Virginia has clinched its most successful season in the ACC ever and the ACC regular season title outright for the first time since the Ralph Sampson days — the 1980-81 season. For the seniors who stuck with the program from the beginning, it was the perfect Senior Night.
“Four years ago, we thought about turning the program around and, not to say that we’ve arrived or anything like that, but we’re definitely where we want to be: ACC champs,” Mitchell said. “Just to say that sounds great, but we want to say NCAA Champs. We have those goals, we have those aspirations.”
The climb to cut down the nets at John Paul Jones Arena as ACC Champions may have been just 10 feet, but for Harris, Mitchell and Bennett, the climb for the Virginia program has been much longer — they’ve been climbing for four years.