Travis Trice

Virginia’s season was special regardless of when they lost in the NCAA tournament

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NEW YORK — Virginia had a phenomenal season, and there is simply no way to go about arguing that fact.

Standard college hoops ideology will tell you differently. The No. 1 seed Cavaliers lost to No. 4 Michigan State in the semifinals of the East Region, 61-59, and the given the way that we look at tournament departures in this event, the bottom line is going to be that Tom Izzo and the Spartans pulled off the upset against Virginia, the top-seeded team in the East Region.

It will be discussed at length on Sportscenter. The myriad of radio interviews that national writers have lined up for the mid-Atlantic stations on Saturday and Sunday morning will undoubtedly be centered on the fact that the dual-ACC champs were unable to get past the Sweet 16 in their first season as a contender under Tony Bennett.

It’s a fair discussion to have. When you get knocked out of the tournament in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed, people are always going to have questions to ask.

But that doesn’t mean that the questions are always going to be fair, and it does mean that any lingering doubts that the good folks of Charlottesville, VA, are going to be validated in their frustration with yet another disappointing finish to a successful season.

Because, when it comes down to it, the difference between Virginia winning an advancing to the Elite 8 and Virginia losing in the Sweet 16 came down to a pair of three pointers.

Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris led the way for the Cavs with 17 points, but it was a missed three from Harris midway through the second half that ended up being the difference maker.

With 10:39 left in the game, Harris got a wide-open look from the right wing that would have put Virginia up 43-36 at a time when the Spartans had managed just 13 points in the previous 18 minutes of basketball. That three wouldn’t have been a dagger, but it would have been a momentum-changer, the kind of basket that could simply take the wind out of Michigan State’s sails.

Instead, the miss sparked a 15-4 Spartan run, with five layups or dunks sandwiching a three-pointer from Travis Trice. Payne and Dawson were responsible for ten of the 15 points Virginia would make a run of their own, tying the game on a three from Justin Anderson with less than two minutes left, but once again it was Payne and Dawson coming up big. Payne hit a three to give the Spartans a 54-51 lead, and on the ensuing possession he threw a lob to Dawson that game Michigan State a five-point lead in the final minute.

That was the difference.

Those two three-pointers.

Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s the fact that Michigan State’s guards are just that much more equipped for handling the moment. Maybe it’s simply the fact that the Spartans dug too deep of a hole. The bottom-line is that Michigan State advanced and Iowa State didn’t.

And while it’s fair to be upset about the result, it’s difficult to quibble with the fact that the Spartans were simply better prepared for the weekend.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.