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Virginia misses NCAA Tournament

Late-season swoon cost Cavaliers spot in "Big Dance"

The Virginia men’s basketball team was left out of the NCAA Tournament when the field of 68 was announced on Selection Sunday. The Cavaliers had been on the bubble after losing three of their final four games including a blowout loss to NC State in the second round of the ACC Tournament.

Wins against tournament teams Duke, Wisconsin, North Carolina and NC State buoyed the Cavaliers’ case for an at-large bid, but early season losses against a trio of Colonial Athletic Association teams and a late season swoon proved too much to overcome. Instead, the team is ticketed for its first NIT appearance under coach Tony Bennett, earning the fourth No. 1 seed and a first-round matchup against eighth-seeded Norfolk St. Tuesday night in Charlottesville.

“I told our guys at the outset, ‘I think we’re on the outside looking in,’” Bennett said. “I said, ‘I hope we’re pleasantly surprised. In some ways, I think we deserve to be strongly considered, but in some ways we couldn’t finish out strong. If that’s the reason we don’t get in, we had our chances to play our way in and we didn’t.’”

Instead of seeking its first Final Four appearance since 1984, Virginia will instead search for its third NIT title in program history. The Cavaliers captured the championship in 1980 and 1992, and will be making their first appearance since 2006 and their 13th in program history.

The 32-team, single elimination NIT Tournament runs from March 19 to April 4 with the first three rounds being played at the higher seeds’ home court and the final three games being played at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Virginia’s bizarre resume filled with statement wins and stunning losses led Bennett to call the Cavaliers “the most interesting bubble team in the world,” alluding to the popular Dos Equis commercials.

“Our job is to identify what we believe to be the 37 best at-large teams in the country,” Division I Men’s Basketball Committee Chairman Mike Bobinski said on ESPN after the bracket was revealed. “That’s not an easy job; there are only so many spots in the field.”

It was Middle Tennessee that claimed the final Tournament spot.

“We felt that Middle Tennessee who was the last team ultimately that is selected in the field had enough going for it,” Bobinski said. “Defensively, they’re really strong. You look at their numbers nationally and they’re in the top-10 percent in almost every defensive category. A veteran team, they had won 28 games this year and we felt that they fit the bill.”

Overall, the ACC earned four bids to the NCAA Tournament: No. 2 seeds Duke and Miami and No. 8 seeds North Carolina and NC State. Virginia beat the three North Carolina schools in the field, but fell to the Hurricanes, who became the first ACC team to win the regular season and postseason conference title and not earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Sunday’s announcement means Virginia could play up to three more games at John Paul Jones Arena, where the team has not lost since a 59-53 shocker to Delaware in the season’s third game. The Cavaliers have set an all-time record at the Arena with 18 home victories this season, and have notched some memorable moments at JPJ.

Virginia not only earned its first win against a top-five opponent in 11 years when it upset Duke Feb. 28, but also scored nationally televised victories against then-No. 19 NC State and North Carolina. The Cavaliers closed the regular season in dramatic fashion with a come-from-behind win against Maryland, overcoming a 13-point deficit for a 61-58 overtime win. Virginia finished a perfect 9-0 at home in conference play for its fourth unbeaten ACC home slate in program history.

Road losses marred the Cavaliers historic season in Charlottesville, however. Virginia fell to seven different ACC foes — Wake Forest, Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Boston College, Florida State and NC State — away from Charlottesville despite defeating each of those teams at home. The Cavaliers finished 3-10 outside of John Paul Jones Arena including an 0-2 mark at neutral sites.

“The way we started at 1-2, the way we started in the ACC, watching us in Europe this summer, I knew we had a ways to go with our youth and with our injuries,” Bennett said. “To have this opportunity — though we didn’t get to the NCAA — to play in the NIT, that’s a positive for us.”

The first-round matchup against Norfolk St. is scheduled for Tuesday at 9 p.m. at John Paul Jones.

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