It took 22 seconds in the second half for Virginia to win the game last Friday night.
As the tips of Joe Harris’ feet left the Madison Square Garden floor just beyond the 3-point arc, his eyes fixed on the orange iron and white nylon contraption which had welcomed more than 250 of his long-range attempts in four college years, Michigan State’s Branden Dawson drifted out toward the Cavaliers’ ballyhooed sharpshooter. In an instant, Harris’ eyes flickered away from the hoop toward a cutting, wide open Akil Mitchell, who converted his fellow senior’s rifled jump pass into an emphatic two-hand slam.
The Spartans mustered one point in the next 6:11 of game-time, missing their first seven field goals and committing four turnovers. The Cavalier defense had by then engaged in full-on tyrannosaurus mode, transforming once again into an insatiable beast, thrashing around its victims as if they were as much of a threat as Newman from Seinfeld’s character in the original “Jurassic Park.”
And though we all knew plenty of game remained, and that anything could technically happen, I couldn’t help but sense that Virginia had this. I knew this team too well to suspect otherwise.
I was wrong.
Whereas in previous second-half surges, sound offense had complemented the suffocating defense — see the 16-2 first-half run against Memphis or the 19-9 and 33-14 game-ending flurries against Duke and Syracuse, respectively — the Cavaliers missed the inside layups and open jumpers against the Spartans that helped them create separation in previous games.
So when Michigan State regained its bearings with around 10 minutes to go, and the two-headed Hydra of Adreian Payne and Dawson began pillaging the Virginia front line, the Spartans didn’t just claw back into the game. They pummeled a Cavalier team that for the first time in months looked a few steps too slow and a few inches too short to get the shots they needed and defend bigger, more athletic opponents. With Virginia trailing 51-44 and less than five minutes remaining on the clock, I could already hear Tony Bennett and the players spouting off gracious quotes through damp eyes, fans staring in disbelief at ceilings and other fans burning old furniture on local avenues. Technically it wasn’t over — but then again, how could it not be?
I was wrong then, too.
To characterize last Friday’s crushing loss a microcosm of Virginia’s season would neglect both nuance and fact. Virginia shot 35.1 percent from the field, its most putrid offensive showing since Jan. 4, and faced a team with a blend of freakish talent and sound veteran leadership it had not yet encountered. They sputtered offensively at the worst possible time, an experience common to everyone from LeBron to the guy screwing up in “2048” in the few minutes before his class starts. Sometimes, no matter how hard and how long you’ve studied, the answers remain just beyond your grasp.
In fact, if the game did illustrate any larger theme of the Virginia’s season, it lies in that last point. As anyone who followed this Virginia season will tell you, all the research and basketball acumen in the world could not have prepared you for such a wacky, tortuous and ultimately thrilling ride.
It’s easy to reflect on Virginia’s 87-52 loss to Tennessee last Dec. 30 as a blessing in disguise, but at the time it felt more like a death. A team with four ugly losses — including one against Wisconsin in which it made connecting on a layup look like solving the Crimean crisis — and disturbing fluidity in its rotation hardly had a rational claim to ACC title contention.
Even after Harris’ now-famous New Year’s Eve pow-wow with Bennett and a renewed offensive focus on off-ball screens keyed a three-game win streak, the team’s wobbly start against Duke Jan. 13 suggested Virginia still lagged behind the cream of the conference crop. When they almost stole that game, you had an inkling this team was onto something. And then they started winning again, clobbering opponents at home, surviving road tilts they would have conceded in 2013 and generally confusing the living hell out of ACC beat writers.
By the time Bennett and his players were cutting down their second set of nets in Greensboro after the ACC title game, Virginia had emerged as a legitimate national title contender. Virginia never became the team fans hoped for in November. It evolved into something far more powerful — a team that struck a peculiar balance between unselfishness and tenacity. The players doubled down on trusting Bennett’s plan when others would have sent that plan through the shredder.
Ultimately, the most startling thing about this squad might be the suddenness with which they started converting Bennett’s tenets of self-sacrifice and unselfishness into elite-level results. “Unity, thankfulness, praise, humility and servanthood,” Bennett’s program pillars, may sound like they comprise the motto of one of the “Game of Thrones” families. But they’re also concepts people refuse to embrace for entire lifetimes, buzzwords easy to parrot but excruciating to embody. That a bunch of college kids, burdened with many of the same insecurities and anxieties and character flaws inherent to such an age, seemed to deploy such values in the service of a basketball team is as astounding as it is admirable.
After I knew the Cavaliers were doomed, Harris hit a driving lay-up. After a stop, Malcolm Brogdon drew a foul and buried two free throws. Another stop later, Harris shoveled a pass along the baseline to Justin Anderson, who nailed his first 3-pointer since March 9 to tie a regional semifinal game in the final two minutes. The Cavaliers had battled back one more time, blowing my reasoning’s doors off their hinges once again along with the physical roofs off many Charlottesville establishments. For at least one more moment, we knew nothing about what was going to happen, but were free to believe anything.
If all goes well, Virginia fans will ultimately remember 2014 as the watershed moment when Bennett’s program became a perennial powerhouse and started treating Final Four contention as an expectation. They’ll remember Harris, Mitchell and Thomas Rogers as progenitors of a golden age, but not the main beneficiaries. In all likelihood, the good stuff is yet to come.
Of course, I can’t say for sure. Nothing is inevitable when it comes to this game. Sometimes that just means disappointment. Every so often, though, something happens in defiance of all expectation that will take your breath away, leaving you perplexed and exhilarated and childish at the same time.
Thanks to the 2014 Virginia Cavaliers, I know that’s far from a bad thing.