SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- With just under three minutes to play in a crackling, snow-bound, hostile environment, a pass buzzed across the floor to Justin Anderson’s right. Virginia’s leading scorer lunged for it, but the ball caromed off his fingers and toward the baseline, and in desperation to retrieve it, Anderson gave chase and flung his 235-pound frame into a row of Notre Dame cheerleaders. Because they are Notre Dame cheerleaders, they are smart enough to know when to move in the interest of their survival, and their parting left Anderson with two rows of folding chairs as the only place to land.
The first row fell. The second row collapsed, too. After a moment, Anderson steadied himself, and he and the courtside seats returned to their upright positions.
“I don’t know what happened on that,” Anderson said later, smiling outside the visitor’s locker room at Purcell Pavilion. “With the good, padded seats they have here, I was good.”
Few moments were more emblematic of No. 3 Virginia’s night: it was rugged and uncomfortable, and maybe a bit painful, before the team gathered itself and managed a soft landing. A 62-56 win over No. 13 Notre Dame will be easy to overlook in a league with Duke and Louisville and more luminous tests to come. But it cannot be overlooked, because it is precisely the sort of result a would-be Final Four team needs. The Cavaliers trudged into the bitter Midwest and an arena that had seen five straight top-10 teams exit with a loss. They played unevenly and unlike themselves in spurts on both ends of the floor. But they then made nearly every single important play in the last eight minutes to move to 15-0 and continue their best start in 34 years.
As Tony Bennett stepped on to a dais to address the media afterwards, a very sensitive body part of the Virginia coach nearly collided with the open metal door of some electronic equipment. Instead of giving new, unwelcome meaning to postgame debrief, Bennett adjusted stride just in time. The road hazards kept coming, and the Cavaliers eluded each and every one.
“Most of our wins are like that,” Bennett said. “It’s a game of mistakes and we had a bad stretch offensively, but we rallied and guys came tough. To be able to pull ourselves out, and then to use some different guys out there, some different groups, that was gratifying. It’s just who’s going to break down less. It kind of comes down to that.”
That actually undersells the clinical finish Virginia had in this game. The team's deliberate tempo and the attention heaped upon its asphyxiating defense obscure the fact that the Cavaliers have one of the nation’s most efficient, egalitarian offenses, the best attack of Bennett’s six-year tenure. They entered the game ranked fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, though uncharacteristic flailing on that end of the floor nearly undermined everything on Saturday.
But cleaning up that disarray almost on command is a memory worth taking into March. Virginia hit six of its first 10 shots from the floor and then devolved into jump-shooting stagnation, missing 11 of its last 15 before halftime. Poised to stamp out Notre Dame early, the Cavaliers instead trailed by three at the break. There was, as Bennett told his team in the locker room, no purpose to what the Cavaliers were doing. It was a performance worthy of the greatest insult he could muster. “I said at halftime, 'You guys look so finesse,' ” Bennett said.
No word as to whether he then passed around buckets of gravel for his players to grind their fists into, or eat.
“We felt like they were running our offense better than we were,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “They had some flares and curls, they were getting to the elbows and kicking out to open shooters and really running that well, at high efficiency. We wanted to stop that, and we wanted to run it better. Because that’s our offense, and we need to be running it at a high clip.”
It came slowly, but it came, in a second half in which Virginia shot 57.7 percent. After a media timeout with seven and a half minutes to play, the Cavaliers hit six of their final nine shots. There was a Marial Shayok three-pointer. There was a Brogdon three-pointer. There was an Anderson three-pointer from the corner, one possession before his tumble into the crowd. All told, four different Cavaliers scored haymaker buckets. Five different players felt emboldened and confident enough to at least take a shot in the defining stretch of the game. A one-score deficit was erased by Virginia conjuring its offensive multiplicity and efficiency on cue.
That is no small matter, and an emergent sign of a title contender, because the defense is usually fine enough and was again Saturday. Notre Dame was shooting 63.6 percent on two-point attempts before this weekend, and it hit just 10 of 35 twos against Virginia, staying afloat on the strength of 10 three-pointers. Bennett went to a four-guard lineup and adjusted switches on ball screens to create shorter close-outs, and the Irish scored just three points in the last four minutes -- and even those came with 1.1 seconds left. Jerian Grant, the soon-to-be All-ACC guard who averaged 17.3 points per game coming in, shot 2 of 8 under the ceaseless hounding of Brogdon. “Malcolm just didn’t yield, almost all game,” Bennett said.
Still, it’s no revelation that Virginia’s defensive underpinning is stout, especially not to Virginia. When in need, the Cavaliers know they can guard. The discovery that they can dip into offensive reserves in key moments, even when that offense had been frustratingly muddied for a good portion of Saturday's game, is something quite different and of incredible value.
That Virginia can do that, and that Virginia now knows it can do that, should bolster the belief within the locker room and all other precincts that a run into April is achievable.
“We always pride ourselves on, it could be anybody’s night,” Anderson said.
Again, Notre Dame had defeated five straight top-10 teams at home, so this was an achievement that shouldn't be understated. Outside that visitor’s locker room door Saturday evening, Anderson tried to frame the context of the win for upcoming games and couldn’t even identify the Cavaliers’ next opponent. It’s never about the future but what happens next, Anderson said somewhat oxymoronically. But everyone got what he meant.
His team, like many other teams, is only concerned with what’s in front of it.
And after all the things Virginia learned about itself on an imperfect Saturday, there might be no limit to that.