RALEIGH – In Memphis’ first game of the NCAA tournament, guard Joe Jackson drove the lane and lobbed an alley-oop with less than 90 seconds remaining in an attempt to seal the game. The miscue ended up inviting George Washington back into the game, as the Colonials had two shots to tie in the final minute. But Coach Josh Pastner didn’t mind. He stressed that Memphis needed to play free and easy to have a chance against top-seeded Virginia.
“If we play not to lose,” Pastner proclaimed, “we’re going to lose.”
Memphis came out with its typical bravado in the round of 32 against Virginia, but the Cavaliers soon put the game in their methodical grip. Ever clinical, never volatile, Virginia dissected the Tigers, shooting 55 percent from the field and holding Memphis to 40 percent in a 78-60 win.
With the minutes fading off the clock and UVA fans understandably bored with walk-ons running the court , they began chanting, “Tony Bennett,” in honor of the current UVA coach. Bennett pretended not to notice, but his stamp on this UVA team is undeniable.
Ever consistent and never sexy, Virginia will likely enter that game against Michigan State as an underdog. The Cavaliers have a precision offense, bruising defense and are able to go nine deep. What they lack is national cache, and Michigan State entered the tournament with the second-best odds. But Virginia may just be a better version of the model that’s allowed Tom Izzo to win in East Lansing year after year.
The Cavs have the country’s fifth best defense, according to the adjusted tempo statistics on KenPom.com. (The Spartans have the country’s 42nd-best defense). Virginia has size in Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson, depth with Anthony Gill and Evan Nolte and strong perimeter shooting with Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris.
Few teams in the country are playing better than Virginia, which has won 18 of its last 19 games. The Cavaliers looked sluggish against No. 16 Coastal Carolina on Friday night, but they overcame a 10-point deficit in their typical unflinching fashion and coasted in the final minutes.
Against Memphis on Sunday night, Virginia pulled away for a 15-point halftime lead when Gill tipped in a buzzer beater right before the half. Eight players scored in the first half for Virginia, indicative of the Cavs' depth and selflessness. Joe Harris finished with 16 points on 10 shots to lead UVA. Gill chipped in 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds off the bench. As usual, the Cavaliers won with defense, as Memphis started the game 8-for-30 from the field and never got in sync.
Two of Memphis’ top shooters, Michael Dixon and Chris Crawford, combined to shoot just 3-for-15.
Virginia seemed to be toying with the Tigers, getting what they wanted on offense with their medley of backdoor cuts, up-fakes and relentless off-ball screens. UVA shot 56 percent in the first half, the high percentage a direct result of the quality of looks.
The way that the Cavaliers play, their 15-point halftime lead may as well have been 25. The Cavaliers stretch possessions on offense and grind opponents on defense. They never allowed Memphis to control the tempo and use their athleticism to their advantage.
Virginia never let Memphis play its game, which really is no surprise. The Cavaliers imposed their will and will head to Madison Square Garden to play against a program renown for its indomitable will. Bring your big boy pants. UVA and Michigan State is going to be a fun and bruising affair.
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