CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the second time in as many years, the second-seeded Virginia men’s basketball team exited the NCAA Tournament at the hands of Michigan State. With a bid to their second consecutive Sweet 16 on the line Sunday in Charlotte, the Cavaliers could not overcome the sluggish starts to halves that have become all too familiar in recent weeks, falling 60-54 to the No. 7 seed Spartans.
Poor shooting plagued Virginia throughout the contest, as the Cavaliers shot a season-low 29.8 percent from the field on 17-of-57 shooting, including 2-of-17 from beyond the arc for an 11.8 percent mark.
“I feel like we started both halves slow and it put us in holes,” sophomore point guard London Perrantes said. “We have been doing that all year and it finally caught up to us… We couldn’t knock down a shot from outside, so they knew they didn’t have to defend it.”
Michigan State senior guard Travis Trice led all scorers with 23 points, while senior forward Branden Dawson followed up his 24-point, 10-rebound performance against Virginia last year with a 15-point, nine-rebound encore.
Junior forward Anthony Gill led the Cavaliers with 11 points, while senior forward Darion Atkins posted 10 points and a career-high 14 rebounds in his final game in a Virginia uniform.
After trailing by as many as 12 points early in the second half, the Cavaliers fought their way back to a 42-36 deficit. Atkins then appeared to block sophomore forward Gavin Schilling’s shot as the shot clock was near its expiration but was whistled for his fourth foul — drawing animated reactions from Atkins and Virginia coach Tony Bennett and sending Atkins to the bench with 8:36 to play.
“When you’re clawing and scrapping, trying to get back in it, you need everything to go well for you,” Bennett said. “It seemed like there was a little bit of a momentum shift there, but that certainly hurt us. Maybe when I watch the tape, I’ll realize that I overreacted to it, but I thought it was a good block and again, we needed everything at that time.”
Atkins sat on the bench for four minutes before returning to the game with the Cavaliers facing a seven-point deficit. The senior, seemingly determined to prolong his collegiate career, sank a pair of free throws to cut the Spartan lead to 49-44.
But Trice had other designs. With the shot clock winding down, Trice waived off a screen, instead electing to pull up multiple steps behind the arc with junior guard Malcolm Brogdon’s hand in his face. The ball sailed through the net, extending the Spartan lead to eight with 2:51 to play and immediately snuffing out any momentum the Cavaliers had from an otherwise solid defensive stand.
Virginia was then unable to make enough shots down the stretch, never coming closer than five points in the final three minutes.
“We got some good looks, but when you’re that cold, it’s hard to beat a team like Michigan State,” Bennett said. “You have to be able to make some plays. Trice made them for them. Dawson made them. We couldn’t get those.”
Trice also imposed his will on the Cavaliers to start the game, ripping off 13 points in three minutes and 43 seconds to break a 2-2 tie and stake the Spartans to a 15-4 lead.
“I thought [Trice] was too comfortable at the very beginning,” Brogdon said. “Losing him in transition and just not pushing him out of his comfort zone. When players that can score at that level get comfortable, then they’re going to knock down a lot of shots.”
Atkins ended the Cavaliers’ nearly six-minute scoring drought when he stuffed sophomore guard Alvin Ellis III’s dunk attempt, setting up a 3-pointer on the other end from freshman guard Marial Shayok. Atkins then trimmed the deficit to six on a pretty hookshot in the paint.
Although Atkins put forth one of the best performances of his career, it was not enough to overcome the team’s poor shooting and defensive lapses.
“The more you miss, the more added pressure you have on your next possessions to get points,” Atkins said. “It causes frustration and panic.”
But Atkins also took a moment to reminisce on his career in spite of the afternoon’s disappointment.
“I wouldn’t trade my career for anything,” Atkins said. “I am blessed to be in this position and we had a great run. I had a great last year… I love these guys so much.”
Bennett echoed his lone senior scholarship player’s sentiments, already with an eye turned toward next year.
“It stings right now, of course, the finality of the season after we’ve had a heck of a year with these guys, but it just leaves that feeling that you wish you could have taken it further,” Bennett said. “But it doesn’t take away — when all the dust settles — what was accomplished, and we give thanks for that, but will certainly learn from what took place.”