Through the dying years of the Jeff Jones era and the first season of Pete Gillen's regime, the Virginia student body did not get many chances to storm the court. They thought they had an opportunity when North Carolina visited University Hall last year, but Ademola Okulaja broke many an orange and blue heart with his game-winning three-pointer with 1.4 seconds left.
So forgive the Wahoo boys and girls if they released their repressed celebration by descending upon the floor of University Hall three times in the waning moments of last night's 87-85 win against the Heels. Throw in the ill-timed release of 300 orange, white and blue balloons, a bit of timekeeping confusion and a question as to exactly who was in the game and the Cavs and Heels stirred up one thoroughly convoluted finish to a rousing ACC contest.
"I was very nervous," Gillen said of the hectic ending. "The crowd was on the court, so I was nervous about [getting a technical foul for] that. I was nervous with 0.3 seconds left because we didn't want to foul them. The game is 40 minutes. I learned that a long time ago from Digger Phelps. It's 40 minutes, it's not 39:59.7. You've got to play to the end. Thank God we didn't make something foolish happen at the end."
The first storming of the court was really more like a drizzle. When Chris Williams caught the inbound pass with 1.5 seconds remaining and a two-point Virginia lead, only about 25 zealots began the rush towards midcourt.
But the rushees quickly scattered for the sidelines when they glanced at the clock and saw that Carolina had managed to foul Williams with 0.3 seconds left.
Williams clanged the first of his two free throws, the rebound caroming to Tar Heel point guard Ed Cota, who launched a one-hand desperation attempt down the court.
The timekeeper hesitated, then clicked off the final three-tenths of a second. Hundreds of orange, white and blue balloons -- one for each of Gillen's 300 career victories -- began their feathery descent from the U-Hall roof. The on-court rush was larger but slightly more tentative this time. The midcourt celebration quickly surged to a full-fledged throng, but the game still was not over.
Williams had another free throw -- Cota's frantic heave didn't mean a thing. Dozens of balloons were popped or chased off the court and the three-tenths were put back on the clock before Williams, acting on the advice of his coaches, intentionally missed his second freebie. But he really missed it; he airballed it.
Thus Carolina had a chance to set up their last-ditch effort. After a bit of controversy over which Tar Heels could check into the game -- yes on Kris Lang and Julius Peppers, no on Brendan Haywood -- Michael Brooker fired a pass downcourt to Joseph Forte, but the über-rookie could not get a legitimate shot off.
The celebration began for a third time. First-year guards Roger Mason and Majestic Mapp, who crippled the Tar Heel backcourt with their second-half defense, danced atop the press table. The crowd hit the floor yet again. This time they stayed for a while.