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The stop and the score

Neither team led by more than four points during the entirety of Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh. The score changed hands seven times and was tied 17 different times.

Yet in a bitter, back-and-forth game, finally it was the Cavaliers who prevailed. Redshirt Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon’s game-winning 3-pointer to defeat No. 18 Pitt provided a stark contrast to Virginia’s fortunes against ranked teams earlier this season and an important confidence boost going forward.

“It was a hard fought game, there wasn’t many easy looks out there,” coach Tony Bennett said. “Each team felt like they had the chance to maybe separate, maybe get up 5 or 6, but then the other team would make a play. It was tight the entire game, we knew it was going to come down to a score or a stop.”

The Cavaliers have missed that stop many times this season.

Tied at 56 against VCU, overtime looked imminent as Virginia’s defense appeared to stifle the Rams’ offense while the clock wound down. But Treveon Graham’s long, contested 3-pointer turned out to be true, and the then-No. 25 Cavaliers suffered the first loss of their supposedly charmed season.

The next month, the team again failed to defeat a ranked team and notch a Tournament-quality victory in a 48-38 loss to a strong Wisconsin team. The loss to a top-10 team was understandable, but shooting 23.4 percent, including 9.1 percent from beyond the arc, was less so. Three days later, Virginia fell in Wisconsin to Green Bay when senior guard Joe Harris missed a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left, down one, and sophomore guard Justin Anderson missed the potential game-tying 3 with two seconds remaining.

In the final game of non-conference play, the Cavaliers hit rock bottom. The team was embarrassed on national television, falling 35-points to an average Tennessee team that just couldn’t seem to miss that night. At 9-4 before even entering ACC play — which was shaping up to be a gauntlet with the addition of Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame — the season with so much potential looked to be on the brink of abject disappointment.

But a new year breathed new life into the Cavaliers, who won seven of their next eight games in dominant fashion before heading to Pitt. Still, something — luck, physics or something greater — was not on Virginia’s side.

After an improbable road comeback that saw the team take a brief lead against Duke, the Cavaliers appeared to make “the stop,” but couldn’t corral a Blue Devil air ball. Instead, Amile Jefferson fed the ball out to Rasheed Sulaimon, whose shot bounced off the rim and almost went into orbit before falling for three points.

They were right there again, but couldn’t finish.

Perhaps it was a psychological leap the team couldn’t overcome. Virginia was 2-1 against ranked teams last year, holding off then-No. 19 NC State for a 58-55 win and of course upsetting then-No. 3 Duke, 73-68.

But both of those games were at John Paul Jones Arena, and the team’s miserable reputation on the road — a 20-2 home record doesn’t look as good when you consider the team’s 3-8 road mark — likely factored into the Selection Committee’s decision to leave Virginia out of the Madness for another year.

This year, whether it was at home or on the road, ranked teams seemed to be the hump Virginia couldn’t overcome.

Until Brogdon flipped the script.

“It was a huge statement for us,” freshman point guard London Perrantes said. “We needed one of those because we haven’t gotten one all season. I feel like if we play the way we should, and the way we did, we can play with anyone at any time, anywhere.”

Ironically, Virginia did just about everything it could to give the game away to the Panthers. Harris hit a 3-pointer to break a 38-38 tie with 8:13 left in the game, and then the Cavaliers failed to score a basket until Brogdon’s bucket with 0.4 seconds remaining on the clock.

Virginia’s free-throw woes resurfaced at the most inopportune time, as the team shot 4-of-8 — including Harris’s mark of 1-of-4 — down the stretch.

And with the game tied for three minutes, Virginia failed to make “the stop” on Pitt’s James Robinson. Robinson’s 3-pointer missed, but Jamel Artis pulled down the offensive rebound and got a layup off from point-blank range.

This time, however, the ball did not take an anti-Virginia bounce. Anthony Gill pulled down a tough rebound — holding tightly as if he was protecting his own child — to make “the stop.” All that was left was “the score.”

After the ensuing timeout, all eyes would have been fixed on Harris one year ago. But this season, focusing too much attention on Harris can prove fatal.

Perrantes brought the ball up and after a series of screens, Harris sprinted towards the top of the arc for a pass. But the senior turned into the lane and Perrantes found Brogdon in Harris’s wake, who pulled the trigger without hesitation.

Finally, the Cavaliers put it all together, “the stop” and “the score.”

“I was so proud of the defensive stand on the late play,” Bennett said. “It’s funny we run [the final play] a lot in practice, but we never make it in practice. But I would rather make it the game than in practice. A lot of guys stepped up tonight.”

After 22 games in the season, Virginia finally cleared the hurdle it had stumbled over so many times before. With nine games remaining, the team plays only one more ranked opponent — undefeated conference-newcomer No. 2 Syracuse in the cozy confines of JPJ.

And after the Cavaliers proved their merit Sunday on a national stage, March 1 in Charlottesville very well could be the site of a battle for ACC supremacy between a nationally-ranked pair with deep NCAA Tournament ambitions.