LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This was the most Virginia way possible to win a Sweet 16 game.
With a wheeze and a stagger and a succession of defensive stops. With shots thudding off the rim — or missing the rim altogether — in bulk. With some help from a curious endgame strategy by the opponent. With little on display to instill confidence that Saturday will be the breakthrough day for a March underachiever starving for a Final Four berth.
The Cavaliers survived against Oregon. They didn’t thrive. But the name of the game in March is simply winning the next one, and they managed to do that, 53-49, in a game that was Cavalier ugly.
“Ugly is in the eye of the beholder,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. “Maybe it wasn’t beautiful offensively, but it was pretty good looking for us defensively. Hanging in defensively, that’s how we’re built.”
The question remains whether Virginia is built for NCAA tournament success.
It has gotten a golden draw in this NCAA tournament, and it still hasn’t been easy. The ‘Hoos did not face the highest possible seed in the second and third rounds, and still the struggle was real. They will not face the highest seed Saturday in the South regional final, either, with No. 3 seed Purdue having upset No. 2 Tennessee.
The Cavs trailed No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb by 14 points in the first round, conjuring up memories of the UMBC horror show of last year, before pulling away. They handled No. 9 seed Oklahoma in the second round, but made just 29 percent of their 3-point shots. And then, gifted with a Sweet 16 game against a No. 12 seed from the wretched Pac-12, Virginia looked for much of the night like it was ready to implode for the sixth straight Big Dance.
Credit Bennett’s team for coming back from a brief visit to its stomping grounds, Chokeville. But man, this was sketchy.
Trailing 45-42 with 5½ minutes to play, Virginia pitched a shutout for the next 5:13. The Cavs made just three shots in that time themselves — 3-pointers by guards Kihei Clark and Ty Jerome, plus a wide-open layup for De’Andre Hunter after a Ducks defensive bust — but it was enough.
After Virginia took a 48-45 lead, everyone in the Yum Center aged several years in the next three minutes. Oregon kept settling for 3-pointers, and Virginia kept missing on the other end. There were eight straight empty possessions, with nothing happening but time dripping off the clock.
Ducks coach Dana Altman contributed to his team’s demise by opting not to foul before the final minute, even though Virginia was not in the double bonus and would have had to make some pressurized one-and-one free throws. Failing to lengthen the game made little sense against a team that, prior to the final 30 seconds Thursday night, had made just 11 of 19 free throws in this tournament.
The other problem area for Virginia has been 3-point shooting. A team that shot 40 percent from the arc before the Big Dance is making just 28.8 percent in the tourney. The Cavs were 9 of 33 from deep Thursday, with Kyle Guy (43 percent on the year) going 2 for 11 and Hunter (also 43 percent) going 1 for 6.
Hunter was particularly poor offensively against Oregon. A guy many are projecting as high as No. 3 in the NBA draft had seven points until the final minute, when he got the easy layup and two free throws to finish with 11. Virginia will need more from him against Purdue.
Virginia gets one more break in its quest for its first Final Four since 1984: The Boilermakers had to go overtime to beat Tennessee, and Purdue leading scorer Carsen Edwards played all 45 minutes. Turning around Saturday, fatigue could be a factor for him.
Though, it should be pointed out, Virginia played its starters massive minutes against Oregon – 36 or more for all of them, with nobody off the bench playing more than seven. That’s because the Cavs could never put the Ducks away.
Nobody said it would be easy for Virginia to finally break through and make a Final Four. But given the breaks along the way, the road to this point should have been easier than it has been. The Cavaliers will be on upset alert again Saturday.
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