GOSSAGE: How will U.Va. hoops respond?
This summer I had the opportunity to chat with coach Tony Bennett from the bleachers in Memorial Gymnasium while he helped out at a youth basketball camp. We got to talking about his special graduated seniors — Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte and Caid Kirven. Their 2015-16 season saw Virginia reach its first Elite Eight since 1995, the year I was born.
Bennett learned I was there with a friend Feb. 13 — two orange wahoos in a sea of blue — when Brogdon made one of the best plays of the year, a no-look reverse layup that gave No. 7 Virginia a 62-61 lead at Duke with 11 seconds left. Grayson Allen’s ensuing buzzer beater not only overshadowed Brogdon’s incredible finish but also — according to Bennett on reflection — really damaged Virginia’s mojo down the stretch.
That last-second loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium lingered in the minds of his players through March — in D.C., Raleigh and especially in Chicago. It made holding onto late leads an anxious struggle.
Watching the big game this afternoon with that same friend I’d been with in Durham, N.C. the year before, uneasy looks lined our faces even after freshman guard Ty Jerome crossed up his defender and flipped in an incredible, game-tying bucket with just 12 seconds remaining.
Villanova could draw up a play in the timeout, spread the floor, put the ball in their best player Josh Hart’s hands, and trust him to get to the cup. The Cavaliers had no fouls to give, the same dilemma they faced when Allen put his head down, drove aggressively into the lane, and flailed.
Junior guard Devon Hall had no choice but to give Hart a cushion on the perimeter, and the frontrunner for the Wooden Award took advantage, dribbling to the front edge of the restricted area. Jerome slid over into the help position, leaving his man Donte DiVincenzo free to crash the glass and tip in Hart’s miss right before time expired.
From the other low block, junior guard Marial Shayok had leapt up to contest the short rebound but was a tad late, waving underneath the basketball and DiVincenzo’s hand. Shayok’s dejection after the tip rattled around the rim and in for the win was identical to what I’d witnessed following Allen’s bank. Shayok’s posture immediately sunk, and his arms swung in frustration.
The same could be said for the other two upperclassmen guards. Junior Devon Hall and senior London Perrantes likewise were on the court for each of the heartbreaks. Both Virginia players listened to the crowd of 20,907 erupt after the slow-motion replay on the big board showed the basketball had left DiVincenzo’s finger tips just before the buzzer.
No. 12 Virginia had led for 32 minutes and 59 seconds and No. 1 Villanova for only one minute and 27 seconds. The Wildcats had trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half and were down seven with 7:54 to go, yet they came out on top.
It was a devastating loss for Virginia, as it would be for any team to lose a contest as hard-fought as Sunday’s was. You could see it in Bennett’s stunned look from the sidelines. His empty expression was little different than what the television cameras had settled on before he’d exchanged words with Coach K.
Maybe Bennett was thinking back to last year at Duke when, on this new occasion, he met a giddy Villanova coach Jay Wright at half court. Maybe Bennett was even worrying about the road ahead and how his guys will respond in ACC play and beyond.
I think the Cavaliers will be just fine. Of course, there’s the nice pattern that the last team to win the series went on to cut down the nets in Houston. But there’s also Bennett’s pack-line — the nation’s No. 1 rated defense — the scoring trio of Perrantes, Shayok and Hall, the unmatched effort of sophomore Jack Salt and junior Isaiah Wilkins, the emergence of Jerome and the potential re-emergence of freshman Kyle Guy. Yes, Virginia is going to be okay.
“It was an unbelievable basketball game…,” Wright said. “The way [Virginia] guarded us, the way they executed offensively, we’re going to learn from that. We’re going to learn so much from this game. I just love playing Virginia. I think [Bennett] is one of the best coaches ever, and I think that program is outstanding.”
Bring on that team from Blacksburg.