LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As Virginia players took the court for Thursday’s second half, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter made a pact. The pair had combined to make four of 16 shots in the first 20 minutes, yet the Cavaliers still led Oregon by eight.
“We’re going to smile through it,” Hunter remembered Guy saying. The terms? “We agreed we were going to smile at each other every time we missed,” Guy said. “Which was quite a bit.”
It was indeed. The pair combined to go 8-for-28 on the night. Oregon mounted a comeback everyone knew was coming, but Virginia clamped down on defense and didn’t allow a field goal in the final 5:21. The teams delivered the rock fight that was promised, but the No. 12 seed Ducks ran out of stones and the top-seeded Cavaliers squeaked out a 53-49 win to advance to Saturday’s South Region final against Purdue. The Boilermakers advanced to the Elite Eight with a 99-94 overtime win against Tennessee that might have featured twice as many points as Saturday’s game.
Some tortured coach is going to punch his ticket to the Final Four on Saturday. Perhaps Tony Bennett, who found himself last year on the business end of the first No. 16 seed over a No. 1 seed, will reach the sport’s biggest stage and prove that his pack line defense and grinding offense can succeed at the highest level. The ghosts of a 20-point loss to Maryland-Baltimore County might be laid to rest in the same building where the team that would ultimately lose to UMBC staged its most miraculous performance. Perhaps Purdue’s Matt Painter, who played for Gene Keady in West Lafayette and then was hand-picked to replace the legend, will get to a point Keady never reached in 18 NCAA Tournament appearances over 25 years at Purdue.
The Boilermakers entered Thursday ranked No. 20 in the nation at 9.9 field goals per game and proceeded to make 15 of 31 threes against Tennessee. Virginia left Thursday allowing opponents to make 28.1% of their three-point attempts. That percentage is second in the nation behind Houston.
Third-seeded Purdue’s willingness to shoot and a more conventionally constructed lineup will provide Virginia with a different challenge than the Ducks, who were the lowest seed remaining in the tournament but arrived in Louisville on a 10-game win streak. “It was a knuckle-buster or whatever you want to call it,” Bennett said. “We had to fight.” The Cavaliers, beloved by hoops nerds and despised by casual fans who just want to see teams run, needed to suffocate an Oregon team that played a baffling style made more difficult to decipher because of a lineup that featured four 6’9” starters and allowed the Ducks to switch relentlessly without slipping into a physical mismatch. Guy put it in more scientific terms. “They have that weird, funky, switching man-zone thing,” Guy said. “We couldn’t really ever figure it out all the way.”
The Cavaliers figured it out just enough. With 4:42 remaining and the score tied at 45, Bennett called a 30-second timeout to give his team a chance to regroup. He drew up an offensive set—which resulted in a Hunter three-point attempt getting blocked by Oregon’s Kenny Wooten—but sent the Cavaliers back on the floor with a reminder. “But what matters is our defense,” Jerome remembered Bennett saying. Virginia players obviously listened, because they didn’t allow another field goal.
While Guy and Hunter traded smiles, 5’9” freshman guard Kihei Clark tied a career-high with 12 points. Jerome made a three from the wing with 3:34 remaining to break the tie. Neither team scored again for more than three minutes. While those casual fans wretched, the nerds reveled in Virginia's ability to frustrate Oregon’s shooters. Then came the biggest grin of all from the pair of frustrated shooters. The Cavaliers inbounded the ball with 41 seconds remaining and began whipping the ball around the perimeter. After 13 seconds of motion, Oregon’s Paul White flashed to the wing in an attempt to trap Guy on the sideline. That left Hunter all alone under the basket. Guy zipped a pass to his smile twin, and Hunter dropped in a layup that he wouldn’t have missed on even his coldest shooting night to make it 50-45. The first team to 50, as predicted, would win.
The misconception is that Bennett commands his players to bleed the shot clock on every possession. The truth is that he asks them to shoot only the best possible shots. That four-minute sequence represented everything Bennett asks of his team. And while it wasn’t conventionally pretty, it was beautiful to him.
“Offense can come and go, and [Oregon] is really good defensively,” Bennett said. “And we stepped up defensively, so you just hang on. You hang on and hang your hat on that defense and hopefully you get enough offense. Again, ugly is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it wasn't great, but I thought it was pretty good looking for us defensively.”
Besides, ugly and beautiful can live together in the same performance. Purdue’s contested shooting from beyond 20-feet, 9 inches against Tennessee was brilliant. Senior guard Ryan Cline, who made 7 of 10 threes and finished with 27 points, was especially deadly. The Boilermakers’ uncontested shooting from 15 feet, however, was horrendous. Purdue made 16 of 33 free throws, which probably would have cost the Boilermakers the game had Tennessee not shot 14-of-28 from the line. “We probably should shoot some free throws,” Painter said of his plans for Friday. “I think that's the genius coming out in me there.”
Meanwhile, one Cavalier made plans to connect with a certain Boilermaker. “I’m going to have to make friends with Grady Eifert,” Guy said, “because I’m a Bengals fan.” Tyler Eifert, Grady’s older brother, broke family tradition and starred at tight end at Notre Dame before landing in Cincinnati. “I’m going to tell him Who Dey before the game,” Guy said.
Then Guy and Hunter and Jerome will try to clamp down on Cline and Purdue guard Carsen Edwards, who scored 29 against Tennessee. As Bennett said during that timeout, what matters for Virginia is defense. “People don’t think defense can win in March,” Guy said early Friday morning, already predicting what Virginia’s doubters will say until the Cavaliers cut down a net. “There’s the testament right there. We held a good team to 49 points.”
To get those scissors in their hands, they’ll need to do that again to a better team.