Walking the walk
'Toughness,' bench players crucial in ACC Tournament Quarterfinals win
GREENSBORO, NC — If the No. 6 Virginia men’s basketball team needed any additional motivation entering its ACC Tournament Quarterfinals matchup against Florida State, Seminole senior forward Okaro White generously provided the gasoline for its fire.
Thursday, following a last-second win against Maryland, White responded to a question about the skirmish during the teams’ previous meeting in Charlottesville by admonishing the Cavaliers: “Don’t try to be a tough guy if you’re not a tough guy.”
Although he apologized to coach Tony Bennett before Friday’s game, White would soon come to regret questioning Virginia’s toughness.
“We believe in our program that toughness is not where you come from or what your background is, it’s about how you play on the court,” sophomore guard Justin Anderson said. “When it comes to toughness, we think toughness is diving on the floor, securing rebounds or making the extra pass — those are things that are tough.”
While sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon dismissed White’s comments as “jibber jabber,” the Cavaliers played the Seminoles with a renewed vigor.
Even Bennett, usually as even-keeled as coaches come during games, was uncharacteristically animated on the sideline. His players followed his lead.
With 11:03 left in the first half, Anderson forced a Florida State turnover on the sidelines, turning to the crowd and shouting, “Let’s go!”
Fifteen seconds later, Anderson found sophomore forward Anthony Gill wide open under the hoop for a two-handed dunk that extended Virginia’s lead to 14-11. It would not be the last time the Cavaliers dunked on the Seminoles.
The first half evolved into Gill’s personal dunk contest. With 2:26 before the half, he ran unimpeded through the lane to slam home a miss from senior guard Joe Harris, prompting Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton to take a full timeout.
But Gill would strike again in virtually identical fashion a minute-and-a-half later, this time finishing an Anderson miss with both hands.
The sophomore from nearby High Point, NC was out to make a statement.
“I was here to watch the loss last year to NC State,” Gill said. “I feel like today we just really wanted to go out there and prove to everybody that we deserved to be here — we deserved to be the No. 1 seed.”
Yet even Gill’s medley of slam dunks was not as prolific as junior forward Darion Atkins’ jam with 7:48 remaining in the game.
Atkins darted in from the left side of the basket, grabbing the Brogdon miss and flushing the ball through the hoop with authority to take a 57-42 lead.
Swinging on the rim as if he was exacting his own sweet revenge against the Seminoles, this dunk — not Anderson’s in Charlottesville that resulted in a confrontation and the ejection of Atkins and sophomore guard Teven Jones — deserved a technical. But Atkins was spared and he calmly jogged down the court, as Jones smacked his hands together and high-stepped on the sideline.
Gill and Atkins finished with 16 and six points of Virginia’s 26 bench points, respectively, while Anderson tallied the other four. Those efforts proved to be invaluable, as Brogdon struggled shooting the ball and Florida State’s bench managed to score just nine points.
Five days after losing its first game since Jan. 13, the top-seeded Virginia played tougher than ever to punch its ticket to the program’s first ACC Tournament Semifinals appearance since 1995.
It wasn’t how they planned it, but perhaps the loss was the best thing for the Cavaliers.
“It gave us that chip on our shoulder that we needed,” freshman guard London Perrantes said. “I think we all feel like we’re the underdogs. People don’t respect us like they should, but we’re just going to go out and play our game.”
One thing is certain — nobody questioned Virginia’s toughness after the final buzzer.
“I think they’re probably one of the top teams that I’ve seen in long, long time,” Hamilton said. “Playing within themselves, playing to their strengths, staying away from their weaknesses, making you pay every time you make a defensive mistake. … They’re an outstanding basketball team.”