In their final non-conference game before the start of ACC play No. 12 Virginia turned in its worst performance of the season, losing 87-52 at Tennessee in a game that was never in doubt. On that evening Tony Bennett’s squad looked more like a team that would have to fight its way into the NCAA tournament than one that could potentially win the ACC.
But that changed in conference play, and on Saturday the Cavaliers beat No. 4 Syracuse 75-56 to win their first ACC regular season title since 1981. Trailing by a point at the half, Virginia pulled away in the second half thanks to a combination of stout half-court defense and much-improved offensive execution. In the game’s final 20 minutes Tony Bennett’s team shot 57.7% from the field and scored a staggering 1.55 points per possession, making seven of its 11 three-point attempts.
However to focus solely on the second-half perimeter shooting when discussing how Virginia was able to execute so well against the Syracuse zone would be a mistake. The Cavaliers did shoot 8-for-16 for the afternoon, but they didn’t settle for many of those looks. Malcolm Brogdon, who finished the game 19 points, five rebounds and five assists, proved to be valuable in his ability to attack the Syracuse defense at the foul line area as both a passer and a scorer. Freshman point guard London Perrantes was also key, dishing out seven assists and turning the ball over just twice.
As a team Virginia assisted on 19 of its 27 made field goals and turned the ball over six times, winning the turnover battle against a Syracuse team that has excelled in that department for much of the season. And Virginia’s performance on the boards shouldn’t be overlooked either, as they both took away one of Syracuse’s strengths (offensive rebounding) and made the Orange pay on the other end.
Syracuse entered Saturday ranked second in the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage, but they managed just ten offensive rebounds and ten second-chance points. By comparison Virginia corralled 13 offensive rebounds (Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey combined for ten) and converted those opportunities into 21 second-chance points, doing much of that work (nine offensive rebounds) in the first half. The Orange were missing a key piece in the second half with Jerami Grant (back) having to sit out, but the Cavaliers simply outperformed them on both ends of the floor.
Virginia has multiple players capable of taking the reins, something that wasn’t the case a season ago. Joe Harris, while not required to score as much as he did last year, remains a threat and the return of Brogdon has certainly helped to alleviate some of that pressure.
Perrantes has been outstanding in running the offense, making sound decisions and displaying a level of maturity you don’t always see from freshman point guards. And in the front court Mitchell (12 points, nine rebounds) and Tobey (11 points, eight rebounds) both played well on Saturday, with Justin Anderson adding 11 points off the bench.
Virginia looked incapable of winning the ACC on that late-December Monday night in Knoxville, but as the season’s worn on the Cavaliers have shown otherwise. On Saturday Virginia achieved that goal, but there’s anything to be taken from the result its that they’re capable of doing more.