All season long Virginia made its living off its tenacious defense, grinding out tight, low-scoring games and regularly coming out on top.
But with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line against Michigan State on Sunday in Charlotte, the Cavaliers met their match. The Spartans, the No. 7 seed in the East region, used their own defensive resolve to hold off No. 2 UVa., 60–54 in the Round of 32, the second straight year they have eliminated Virginia from the NCAA tournament.
It was a defensive battle from the start, as Michigan State jumped to an early 15-4 lead thanks to 13 quick points from Spartans senior guard Travis Trice. The play of forwards Darion Atkins and Anthony Gill jump-started Virginia, which climbed back to head into halftime down 23–18. It was the lowest scoring first half of the tournament so far, and just the third time this season UVa. shot under 30% in a half.
The last two times that happened, the Cavaliers still won the game. But offense was at a premium on Sunday, and Michigan State gutted out just enough of it down the stretch.
Virginia certainly had its chances. Even after senior Branden Dawson scored seven straight points early in the second half and Bryn Forbes hit a three to help the Spartans take a 37–25 lead, UVA battled back, showing the same gritty resolve it has displayed all year.
With 5:33 remaining, Gill made a free throw to cut the deficit to 45-41. But the Cavs were in the midst of a 10 minute stretch without a field goal, and a three-pointer from Trice with 2:52 remaining put the Spartans ahead by eight. Virginia never got closer than five the rest of the way, even though Michigan State made just 6-of-10 at the line in the final minute.
Justin Anderson, who had missed a month before rerturning in the ACC tournament and then scored 15 points in a very encouraging effort against Belmont in the Round of 64 on Friday, was relatively quiet against MSU, scoring eight points and grabbing one rebound. After shooting 47% from three before he broke his finger in February and had an appendectomy earlier this month, he made just 1-for-9 in his four games back, including 0-for-4 from behind the perimeter on Sunday.
Trice, meanwhile, shot 4-of-8 from three to pour in a game-high 23 points to lead the Spartans. Fellow senior Dawson added 15 points and nine rebounds.
Virginia shot just 29.8% for the game and 2-for-17 from three. It was a familiar ending for the Cavaliers, who dropped a 61-59 decision to Michigan State at last year's Sweet 16 in New York City to finish at 30-7. This year Virginia finishes 30-4 and is the first ACC team to lose in the NCAA tournament. The Cavs' loss blows the East Regional even more wide open. No. 1 seed Villanova was upset by N.C. State on Saturday, meaning neither of the top two seeds in the East will taste the Sweet 16.