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ACC Tournament: Virginia advances to title game

No. 1 seed Cavaliers withstand late rally to win 51-48 and set up Sunday matchup with Duke

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Up 51-48 with nine second left to play in their ACC semifinal game against Pittsburgh, the Virginia men’s basketball team’s lead was not looking particularly safe. A 4-0 Panther run had cut the game to one point before redshirt sophomore Anthony Gill’s two free throws put the team up three points.

As Pitt advanced the ball up for its final possession Virginia fouled twice, cutting the clock to four seconds. Panther sophomore guard James Robinson got the ball off the subsequent possession, but as he went up for a desperation 3-pointer, sophomore guard Justin Anderson jumped and reach it just in time to deflect it off course. Gill corralled the rebound to seal the 51-48 win and send Virginia to its first ACC Tournament final in 20 years.

“Robinson got some separation on me and I wanted to make sure I didn’t get any cheap fouls or anything off the screens,” Anderson said of the play. “Once I saw that he hesitated a little bit to shoot the first time — he pump faked a little bit — I just jumped and contested it and I felt four fingers on it, and that was the best feeling ever.”

Anderson and Robinson have know each other for a while — Anderson played at Montrose Christian High School in Maryland, and Robinson played at nearby DeMatha High School. The two also played on the same AAU team, so Anderson says he was aware of Robinson’s tendencies.

“He’s always won games, he’s such a big time basketball player, he’s so clutch,” Anderson said. “So I knew if he could take the shot, he would take it, so I just wanted to make sure I closed out on him.”

Virginia and Pitt are both more widely known for their defenses than their offenses, and the game was expected to shape up similarly to the teams’ only regular season meeting, a 48-45 Cavalier win on the road in Pittsburgh. Neither team was able to create any separation early as the lead changed 10 times in the first half.

It took nearly eight minutes for either team to break into double digits, as Anderson gave Virginia a brief 10-8 lead. The Cavalier players say that grinding out low-scoring games is just as exciting to them as getting into shootouts.

“It keeps the game suspenseful,” Anderson said. “You never know what’s going to happen. … We want to play defense from the beginning and we’ve said since day one … that defense does win championships. Our defense has gotten us to this point, and we want to continue to do that.”

Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon led the team in scoring in the first half, picking up six points on 3-for-5 shooting. Senior guard Joe Harris was right behind him with five points, but he was just 1-for-5 from 3-point range, and the team overall was just 2-for-10 from the long range in the half.

“I had good looks, I just didn’t make them,” Harris said. “Nobody lost any confidence. Everyone kept on yelling at me to shoot the ball. When you have people like that … everyone kind of breathes confidence into you, you don’t have to worry about missing shots.”

Virginia was a respectable 11-for-23 from the field overall in the half, and Harris’ lone three of the half proved to be big, as he put Virginia up 26-24 with 1:43 left in the half — the score would hold as the teams went into the break.

The Cavaliers looked primed to make a signature second-half run — they built the lead to eight points midway through the second half — but Pitt hung around, cutting the lead down to just three points with five minutes to play. Virginia opened up the half on a hot streak, but the Cavaliers went six minutes without making a field goal down the stretch.

“I think we got fatigued and we got stagnant,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “It came down to us trying to make some plays, and we just got a few good looks in that, but pretty stagnant and I probably could have maybe given them some better sets to get them moving a little more. There were some tired guys out there, and I didn’t think we ran our offense as hard, or when we had a set, we kind of got thwarted by Pitt’s D.”

Virginia extended the lead back to five points, but a score by Pitt redshirt senior Lamar Patterson cut the lead to 49-46 with 51 seconds to play. The Cavaliers tried to run the clock down, but a Brogdon turnover led to a layup on the other end by Robinson. Senior forward Akil Mitchell looked like he made contact with Robinson — a foul would have given Pitt a chance to tie the game — but there was no call from the referees.

“I wanted to contest it as best as I could,” Mitchell said. “I definitely didn’t want to foul. But, you know, they let it go.”

Pitt would foul Gill on the inbound and the redshirt sophomore would sink both free throws to re-establish a three-point lead. As they gave the ball back to Pitt, the Virginia players were confident they could get a stop.

“We pride ourselves in getting stops and being a defensive minded team,” Harris said. “When the last possession comes down to getting a stop, I would say that man for man on our team, we would feel confident we would be able to do that.”

Anderson’s block sealed the win, and Virginia now advances to its first ACC Tournament final since 1994. The Cavaliers will take on Duke, who beat NC State 75-67 in Saturday’s other semifinal game. Virginia’s only ACC Tournament title came in 1976, and the 2014 Cavaliers are eager to add their name to the list.

“Obviously, what [the 1976 team] did was special, because of how special the ACC tournament is,” Bennett said. “But it would be great to obviously put another banner or have that to share with them.”