Four minutes remained in a lopsided game. After recording his second block of the game and prolonging a night that rendered Memphis an ant underneath a giant Virginia defensive magnifying glass, Mike Tobey gathered the ball at the top of the 3-point arc with oodles of time remaining on the shot clock and his defender hanging back in the lane.
With an almost mischievous twinkle in his eye, Tobey fired. And on a night when it kept occurring to me how strange it was that JPJ had seemed to have dyed its seats N.C. State red, the ball sailed through the net and sent Virginia players and fans into bewildered ecstasy.
“I knew if I missed that, I was coming right out,” Tobey said of his long-distance bomb. “So I just wanted to shoot a three.”
Not to disparage Tobey’s shooting ability — he’s now 4-for-8 for his career from distance and frequently draws compliments from teammates about his range — but Tony Bennett would have pulled Tobey from the game faster than you can say “heat check” had the outcome remained in the balance. As it was, the Cavaliers were polishing off a 78-60 drubbing of the Tigers to earn their first trip to Sweet 16 since the year Coolio recorded a year-end number one hit. Without the need to exercise the prudent patience Bennett’s half-court sets typically exalt, Tobey decided he might as well make it rain from deep.
It was one of many moments Sunday night embodying the unique character Bennett has helped bring to this Virginia team. While exuding discipline, selflessness and plenty of other ennobling virtues, Bennett and his players also seem like they’re enjoying the heck out of all this.
The most overt sign that the Cavaliers are savoring their rapid transformation into hoops juggernauts results lies, of course, in the way they go bonkers every time something cool happens. Led by hype master and consensus Nae Nae All-American point guard Teven Jones, players on both the court and the bench erupt in joy whenever a silky Joe Harris 3-pointer or bruising Anthony Gill “And-1” play connects.
It crested Sunday a few minutes after Tobey’s 3-pointer, when a streaking Justin Anderson threaded a pass to Evan Nolte — owner of “sneaky bounce,” according to Tobey — for an emphatic fast break jam. The bench collectively leaped 10 or so feet in the air, while Nolte wore the same sheepish grin he brandished while nailing jumpers against Coastal Carolina, looking like a guy failing to keep a poker face after drawing a royal flush at the World Series.
Rigid as they are in their devotion to Bennett’s packline defense and pass-heavy, deliberate offense, the Cavaliers also have shown a tendency to go for the jugular on the court. Sometimes they sacrifice the sound play to try to rake a grand slam. Even Harris and Malcolm Brogdon, often cool and collected in their shot selections, jack up hero-ball jumpers every now and then.
More often than not, however, the Cavaliers have struck a nice balance between adhering to the principles responsible for their success and nailing the kinds of momentous plays that crush an opponent’s spirit. Anderson may fall victim to over exuberance as often as Guy Fieri, but Virginia may not have survived Pittsburgh in the ACC semi-finals — or be in this position at all, for that matter — had that same instinct not driven him to a bold, game-clinching block.
Many college teams genuinely like each other, or pump their fists and grin like madmen when good things happen. Far more aim for home runs at the expense of singles. What distinguishes the Cavaliers is that the types of plays that evoke elation are often those that have less chance of appearing on a SportsCenter Top 10 than a Mark Sanchez-delivered pass. Take this quote from Malcolm Brogdon on how the Cavaliers sprung ultimately lethal 16-2 first-half ending run during which Memphis shot 1-for-9 . It almost sounds like basketball schadenfreude.
“You know, we could sense some frustration and barking at each other a little bit at the beginning,” Brogdon said. “We feed on that. We feed on it and use it as fuel to get us going even more defensively, and it leads into our offense.”
In addition to the players, Virginia fans — a tangible boon for the team in its heretofore unblemished postseason surge — have started delighting in the kinds of things other fanbases barely notice. One of the few categories in which Memphis ousted Virginia was that of offensive rebounding (8-6), a product partly of the team’s focus on getting back on defense to prevent the Tigers’ fast-break attack. Unfortunately for Memphis, nearly every second chance opportunity it acquired spurred the pro-Virginia crowd to ratchet up the volume. Yes, Cavalier fans actually got louder when the Tigers got another crack at scoring the ball, because they knew it represented another opportunity for a smothering pack-line triumph.
Success itself is the first mover here. Far fewer observers — myself included — were advising Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage to pay Bennett a Nick Saban’s ransom to stay here after a discombobulated 9-4 non-conference slate. Tobey shot no cheeky 3-pointers in that 35-point loss to Tennessee. Everyone in the community is having a ball first and foremost because Virginia is crushing people.
Yet one of Bennett’s most impressive triumphs in a year defined by them is fostering an atmosphere in which players have bought into something larger than themselves — something John Wooden-esque in its emphasis on self-sacrifice, execution and deliberate process — and made it look like a blast. Virginia fans get to cheer not only for a winner, but one that does things the “right way” without a shred of the snootiness those kinds of phrases can project.
Whatever happens the next few weeks, that’s what I’ll remember most about this particular team. Despite their machine-like efficacy since January, you never forget that these are college kids susceptible to the same thirst for enjoying themselves familiar to us all.
Maybe that won’t help Virginia upend Michigan State, perhaps the only team in the nation that can match or surpass the Cavaliers’ depth and one every bit as good as the talking heads on TV have assured you. But it does add an extra incentive in addition to getting to a shot at the Final Four.
A victory means the fun doesn’t have to stop for any of us.