No Virginia player was even born the last time their team won an outright ACC title. (Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
A couple of decades of frustration lifted off the shoulders of Virginia fans on Saturday afternoon. That's how long it'd been -- 33 years -- since the Cavaliers had celebrated an outright ACC championship. But as the clocked ticked down to the end of the 12th-ranked Cavaliers' 75-56 upset of No. 4 Syracuse, Virginia fans could embrace an uncommon truth as they stormed the court at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville: These Wahoos are ACC champs.
Coach Tony Bennett's crew capped a regular season with an outright crown for the first time since Virginia's 1980-81 campaign. The Orange, which started the year 25-0 and climbed to the top of college basketball's rankings, came up short for the ACC regular-season crown in their first season in the conference, losing for the third time in four games. Virginia's top-ranked defense did its job against Syracuse's attack down the stretch while the Cavaliers capitalized on a dominating rebounding performance on both ends.
Virginia, winners of 17 straight ACC homes games coming into Saturday, looked like it might have what it takes to chip away at Syracuse as the afternoon progressed. The Cavaliers fought back from an 8-3 deficit early to take a 22-15 lead by the 6:41 mark in the first half. The Orange weren't done, however, as a Rakeem Christmas dunk capped a 13-2 run by Syracuse to regain the lead, 28-24.
The Orange went into the half with a 28-27 lead after holding Joe Harris, Virginia's second-leading scorer at 11.8 per game, to a single point before intermission.
The Cavaliers showed why they deserved the ACC title in the second half. Syracuse star Tyler Ennis picked up his third foul less than two minutes in, and Ennis sat on the Orange bench with four fouls later in the half as Virginia began to pull away. By the time Malcolm Brogdon knocked down a jumper with 5:18 to play, the Cavaliers had reeled off a 14-3 run. That caused a timeout from coach Jim Boeheim with the Cavaliers leading 56-45. Bennett credited much of the Orange's confusion to the home crowd, including the "Hoo Crew" student section that stormed the court after the victory.
After a sorry first half, Harris made his presence known in the waning moments, knocking down his first three-pointer in six tries to give Virginia a 60-47 lead with just over four minutes to play. He finished with seven points.
Virginia handled the game on the boards with a 39-29 rebounding advantage, including 13 offensive rebounds. Starting forwards Akil Mitchel and Mike Tobey grabbed five offensive boards each.
The promise that followed Syracuse's perfect start to the season has seemingly deflated as Selection Sunday approaches. That's not to say this Orange roster won't be dangerous once the brackets are unveiled. But Boeheim's search for a No. 1 seed likely won't come to fruition. The Orange weren't themselves shooting the ball against Virginia's defense, and they finished hitting only 35 percent of their shots. Ennis and C.J. Fair combined for 26 points but shot a combined 8-for-24 to get there. In all, the Orange hit just five of their 22 three-point attempts, while the Cavaliers connected on half (8-of-16) of their attempts from deep.
The good news for Syracuse is Trevor Cooney seemed to break out of his shooting slump on Saturday, hitting three three-pointers after missing 20 of his 25 attempts from deep over his last four games. Cooney is one piece of this offense Boeheim will need to advance deep into March. That path should be a little tougher thanks to Saturday's loss, however.
For the Cavaliers, Bennett can take solace in a No. 1 seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament regardless of what happens in next weekend's regular-season finale against Maryland. It's hard to believe this Virginia team lost by 35 to a bubble Tennessee team only two months ago. Bennett said as much in his postgame interview with ESPN's Janine Edwards, as tears appeared to fill his eyes.
"After that Tennessee game, who would've thought?" Bennett said. "But here we are."
But since a 69-65 loss to a talented Duke squad on Jan. 13, the Cavs have reeled off 13 straight victories en route to a league title in one of college basketball's toughest conferences. This year has undoubtedly been the most productive of Bennett's time in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers had lost at least seven ACC games in each of Bennett's four previous seasons. Virginia boasts a 16-1 conference record after Saturday's win, with that lone loss coming against Duke. Moreover, the Cavaliers have a 2-1 record against Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse, the best record of that group against one another. That improvement hasn't been lost on Bennett, who shed tears of joy as he approached Boeheim for the postgame handshake.
Coaches always say their rosters can be totally different in March than what they were in November. This Virginia team is a prime example of such growth.