By David Mackey III | @davidmackey_iii
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO — The lights were dim. There was an uncomfortable silence in the Virginia Cavaliers’ dressing room. Many of the players held their head in their hands in disbelief. “What happened?” sophomore guard Mariol Shayok asked teammate Isaiah Wilkins. There were no words. Wilkins shook his head with tears in his eyes.
“I really don’t know what happened,” junior guard London Perrantes said with teary eyes. “I’m lost for words right now.”
Syracuse rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Virginia, 68-62, in the NCAA Elite Eight at the United Center. No.1 seed Virginia led by 15 points with 9:32 to go and by nine with 7:32 to play. It looked as if the Cavaliers were going to make their third Final Four appearance, the first in 32 years.
But the unthinkable happened. Syracuse went on 15-0 run to make it 64-58 with 3:27 left. Virginia didn’t score until Anthony Gill’s layup made it 64-60 with 1:43 remaining. Cavalier guard Malcolm Brogdon, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, was limited to 12 points on 2-of-14 shooting, 1-of-6 from 3-point range.
Coming into the game, Syracuse had a record of 0-5 in games that included deficits of 14 points or more. The Orange had not lost an NCAA tournament game by 16 or more points since 2001.
In the first half, Virginia led the Orange, 35-21, and it looked, once more, as if the Cavaliers had solved Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. In order to beat the zone, the Cavaliers moved the ball around quickly, which kept Syracuse defenders scrambling to recover. Often, Virginia used the drive-and-kick offense to score points. It would send Brogdon to attack the paint, then Syracuse’s defense would collapse, and he’d kick the ball to an open man on the perimeter. Perrantes took advantage when he became open, making 5 of 8 first-half shots with all of his baskets coming from behind the 3-point line. His total of six 3-point shots was a Virginia record in a NCAA tournament game.
Perrantes ended the half with 15 points. He would score just 3 more, making 1 of 4 shots in the second half, for a total of 18. “We just came up short,” Perrantes said. “Basketball is a game of runs, and we ended up on the other side of it. As a group of guys, we did everything we could for one another, helped each other, but it’s just tough losing.”
During the first half, Virginia was able to build upon the long-range shooting of Perrantes by moving the ball effectively on the interior. The Cavaliers often used bounce passes in traffic to get the ball down low to their center, Mike Tobey. This plan worked as Tobey scored 4 points in eight minutes in the first half and ended with 10 points. Defensively, Virginia forced Syracuse into seven turnovers by jumping passing lanes and smothering its players defensively. Virginia had surely taken the game over at that point.
But when the Orange reduced the deficit to 12 points with 9:47 to play, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had his team press Virginia, a maneuver that would change the game. “I think we had some success,” Brogdon said. “We just couldn’t finish on the other end, maybe a few miscommunications on some turnovers. But for the times that we did break the press, we just didn’t finish the play at the end.”
When Virginia would get the ball to the high post, guards Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney would be waiting to trap and force a steal. Syracuse did not commit a turnover in the second half. Virginia turned the ball over six times. Syracuse outrebounded Virginia, 22-16, in the second half.
The Cavaliers had made 53.6 percent of their shots against zone defenses this season, the best figure in Division I. With a spot in the Final Four on the line, the Cavaliers made just 36.8 percent of their shots. Virginia’s lowest percentage of the season was 36.5 against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game.
The 47 points Virginia allowed in the second half were the most scored in a half against the Cavaliers this season.
Everything changed in a few decisive moments for the Cavaliers.
“We were up the whole game and at the very last minute things just started to unwind,” said Virginia guard Darius Thompson. “We started settling for jump shots when they pressed us instead of playing aggressive like we did in the first half. Then the press rushed us into making turnovers, and that’s why they won the game.”