Having survived the longest three-tenths of a second in college basketball history and handing an 87-85 defeat to a sinking North Carolina squad Tuesday night, it was time to celebrate for the Cavalier men. The season was little more than half over and much work remained to be done, but they knew they had just captured the biggest win in the year and a half since Pete Gillen arrived in Charlottesville.
Seven times last year the Cavs (12-5, 3-2 ACC) went up against Duke, UNC and Maryland, the cream of the Conference crop. Seven times Virginia swallowed a loss, often in embarrassing fashion. Yet even as Gillen began putting the Cavalier program back together, his overachieving charges managed to make a couple of those defeats genuine nail-biters and heart-breakers, most notably a one-point home loss to Carolina.
As the second year of the Gillen regime dawned, a vastly improved talent base gave the Wahoo faithful good reason for a level of optimism that in some circles bordered on the outlandish. The titans of the ACC -- and menacing non-Conference opponents like St. John's -- surely would be on the alert for this up-and-coming Virginia squad.
But the Red Storm washed over the Cavaliers Dec. 4 and the Blue Devils escaped with a 109-100 overtime win Jan. 5 at University Hall. Late December opponents like Loyola, Hampton, Richmond, Belmont and Dartmouth fell in relatively easy fashion, but those were hardly highly-regarded foes. The Cavs still were waiting for a victory that would turn heads around the Conference and perhaps even the nation.
That win may have come Tuesday night. No. 21 North Carolina, who now owns seven losses, has been tumbling down the national polls for the past few weeks, but any team that knocks off the always-hyped Tar Heels is bound to generate some nationwide respect.
"I'm thrilled for them," Gillen said of his players. "It's a step in the process. We've beaten some excellent teams already, but to beat a Top 25 team like Carolina with their storied tradition was special for our players and also for our coaching staff, myself included."
Majestic Mapp, Virginia's sparkling rookie point guard, was not wearing the orange and blue last year when UNC's Ademola Okulaja dashed the Cavs' upset hopes with a game-winning three-pointer with 1.4 seconds remaining. Having seen his ballclub register January victories against Georgia Tech and Clemson and go down in defeat at N.C. State Jan. 12, Mapp recognized the importance of Tuesday's win over the Heels, especially in light of the achingly slim Duke loss.
"It was really fun [to beat UNC], because people don't really think we're a good team yet," Mapp said. "We're a good team with the potential to be great. In the Duke game, it was just a little bit of mental mistakes, defensive stops we didn't get. In the N.C. State game, I think that if we were at home, we would've gotten the win. This is a big one. It lets us know that we can play with the big teams in the country."
The arrival of first years like Mapp, Roger Mason and Travis Watson, along with consistent improvement from second-year stars Chris Williams and Adam Hall has accelerated the Cavaliers' assention to fourth place in the ACC. As they prepare to face Virginia Tech in Richmond Monday night, the 1999-2000 Cavs boast solid wins over the Yellow Jackets and Tar Heels and a near-victory against the Blue Devils. But don't paint them as the scrappy underdogs.
"I don't look at any game as an upset," third-year point guard Donald Hand said. "Our team goes out there and plays as hard as we can every night and we always put ourselves in a position to win. So I don't consider it an upset, I just think that our team is taking that other step"