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No. 5 Cavs close regular season against Terrapins

Virginia, Maryland conclude ACC rivalry dating back to 1953

The past week has been nothing short of sensational for the No. 5 Virginia men’s basketball team. After earning its first outright regular season ACC championship since 1981 with a dominant win against Syracuse, Virginia claimed its first top-five ranking in more than a decade. To top it off, redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon was named co-ACC player of the week Monday after scoring a career-high 19 points against then-No. 4 Syracuse — the first such honor for any Cavalier this season.

Despite the postseason excitement surrounding the team on both a local and national scale, Virginia is still set to play one last regular season game before the ACC tournament next week — and the matchup is a special one. The Cavaliers (25-5, 16-1 ACC) will travel to College Park, Md. to face Maryland (16-14, 8-9 ACC) Saturday for the final time as conference foes.

The game will mark the two programs’ 181st meeting in a series which dates back to 1912. The biannual meetings between the two schools have tended to present narrow games in the past several seasons — when the teams met in the final regular season game last season, Virginia escaped with a victory in overtime, while earlier this year, the Cavaliers overcame a 26-25 halftime deficit to prevail 61-53 in Charlottesville.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett knows it will take his team’s best effort to extend its 13-game win streak.

“Coming off the Syracuse game, we know how good Maryland was when we played them at our place,” Bennett said. “[We’re] just trying to continue to play the right way. It’s done now. It’s time to move on.”

The team’s balance has been key for Virginia in ACC play. No player is averaging more than 31 minutes per game, while eight players are averaging double-digit minutes. The bench has provided huge energy for the Cavaliers, with sophomore guard Justin Anderson and redshirt sophomore forward Anthony Gill placing third and fourth on the team in scoring, respectively.

“That’s been the strength of our team,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if you can say it’s just this guy, this is your MVP. I think that’s what makes this team strong. There are different guys and they all bring different things.”

Bennett’s style of basketball has been referred to as slow and low-scoring — an opinion validated as the Cavaliers lead the nation in allowing just less than 55 points per game while only averaging about 66 points per game.

Despite Virginia’s lethargic tempo, this season has provided something Cavalier faithful are not used to witnessing — explosive plays. Whether coming from hitting baskets just before the halftime buzzer or blocked shots — such as Anderson’s block and the ensuing 3-pointer by senior guard Joe Harris, which sent John Paul Jones Arena into a frenzy during the last Maryland meeting — Virginia has delivered.

“You try to put your guys in good spots,” Bennett said. “It’s the ability to make plays [and] finish plays. I think a lot of times against great defenses, whether the shot clock is going down, you need those situations where plays are made. Guys make that great pass for an easy look or they can just manufacture their own. You try like crazy to manufacture sets that get these easy looks, but a lot of times it has to come down to plays being made.”

While Virginia has been gliding through ACC play, Maryland has experienced quite the opposite. Picked to finish seventh in the conference in the preseason, the Terrapins are currently sitting in ninth, on the outside of the bubble looking for NCAA-tournament consideration.

Maryland has won just three of their past eight games. In that stretch, the Terrapins experienced several close defeats, including losses against both Syracuse and current-No. 4 Duke by two points each, while also dropping a double overtime game against Clemson. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon has been pleased with his team’s improvement in recent games, but said he certainly would like to see his team come up with a few more wins.

“We’ve gotten better,” Turgeon said. “We’re defending better. We’re rebounding better. We’re executing better. We’re doing a lot of things better. I guess it would come down to playing better down the stretch in close games.”

Turgeon attributes part of Maryland’s struggles to the team’s inability to manage practice time earlier in the season. As they prepare to play their third game in seven days, the Terrapins will rely on intangibles in their attempt to spoil Virginia’s run.

“We got a lot of time off, and we haven’t handled time off very well this season,” Turgeon said. “It really comes down to how mentally tough we are.”

For Virginia, meanwhile, Maryland will be the first opponent in eight days following the Syracuse win. Bennett gave his players two days off, but he has continued to push them hard in practice — not only for their final conference game against Maryland, but also for their increasingly bona fide tournament aspirations.

“I think it’s a time to really improve,” Bennett said. “You give them the rest as you head into it. Days off, and all that. Then you have time to really try to improve from now to when we play Friday in the ACC tournament.”

Tipoff is scheduled for noon Sunday at the Comcast Center.