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Win at North Carolina stands as biggest victory in two years for Cavalier men

Three hundred sixty-seven days ago, the Virginia men's basketball team stood seconds away from a miracle win over No. 14 North Carolina.

In front of a raucous crowd in the final home game of the season, a small, hearty band of Cavaliers clung desperately to a 66-64 lead. But their upset hopes were dashed when Tar Heel senior Ademola Okulaja drained a three with 1.4 seconds left to give the Heels a one-point win. Jubilation broke out on the Carolina bench, while several of the Cavs fell to the court, overcome with emotion and grief at how close they came to their biggest victory of the season.

How fitting, then, that exactly one year later Virginia would notch its first-ever victory over UNC in the Dean Dome to register not only the biggest win of the year, but the biggest of the Pete Gillen era.

Forget about last season's comi-tragic saga, which featured six scholarship players, a slew of walk-ons - including the as-yet-unidentified Three-Fingered Willie - and a malevolent scattering of wet leaves on one cold November eve.

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  • You also can throw out a lot of this season, including the early blowout losses at Minnesota and St. John's, the overtime loss to Duke and even last month's victory over North Carolina at U-Hall. Nothing compares to Sunday's triumph in terms of earning Virginia some measure of national respect.

    From the opening tip of Sunday's contest, the Cavs played like men possessed. They played like they had nothing to lose.

    They didn't play like a team struggling under the yoke of history, a team remembering that the last time Virginia bested the Heels in Chapel Hill, short shorts were still in vogue and Majestic Mapp and Travis Watson weren't even born.

    Most importantly, they were unafraid. And that has made all the difference.

    After the game, assessments of the Cav effort by both camps were nothing short of glowing. Gillen called it his team's best showing of the year. Carolina Coach Bill Guthridge called the Cavaliers "sensational" and predicted they definitely would make the Big Dance. Even Tar Heel point guard Ed Cota said the Cavs impressed him. Keep in mind this is the same Cota who, after UNC got blown out by the Duke juggernaut in the ACC Tournament final last year, asserted that the Blue Devils weren't that great.

    Can it be? Have the Cavaliers finally attained that Holy Grail of college basketball: national respect?

    If you go by the national rankings, the Cavs haven't reached that goal yet. In the AP poll released yesterday, Virginia garnered only nine votes. But, to paraphrase a certain sports entertainer who shall remain nameless: "It doesn't matter what the polls say!"

    It's no surprise that Virginia's victory over Carolina didn't result in a Top 25 appearance. After all, perennial also-rans like Iowa State and Vanderbilt are having better years than the Heels.

    But to walk into the Dean Dome and defeat a team with the history and mystique of North Carolina - and by 14 points no less - speaks volumes. Wins like that make seasons. They can represent turning points in a program's history. They also can impress NCAA Tournament selection committees and earn a "bubble team" an invitation to The Dance.


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