By Jack Carney | @jackwcarney
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO — Virginia, a team known primarily for its defensive proficiency and deliberate pace, overpowered Iowa State offensively with superb ball movement and interior scoring in an 84-71 victory over the Cyclones in a Midwest regional semifinal at the United Center. The Cavaliers (29-7) advanced to an all-Atlantic Coast Conference regional final against Syracuse.
With the Sweet 16 victory, Virginia earned its sixth trip to a regional final and the first since 1995. The Cavaliers will play for a chance to reach their third Final Four and first since 1984.
Senior forward Anthony Gill led the Cavaliers with 23 points and eight rebounds. Senior reserve center Mike Tobey scored 18, one less than his career high.
The matchup had been expected to feature Iowa State’s explosive offense versus Virginia’s stiff defense. On Friday night the Cavaliers, who had averaged 70.9 points this season, proved they can score, too. Virginia picked the Cyclones apart with surgical passing, especially in the first half. The Cavaliers assisted on 15 of their 17 first-half baskets. Virginia led by as much as 17 in the first half and finished the period with a 45-31 advantage.
The Cavaliers had 26 assists, a school record in an NCAA tournament game, on 32 field goals. Virginia made 60.7 percent of its first-half shots and 56.1 percent for the game.
Iowa State (23-12) reached a regional semifinal for the fifth time in school history and the second in three tournaments. The Cyclones lost for the fourth time in four games against No. 1-seeded teams. The three previous teams – Michigan State in 2000, North Carolina in 2005 and Kentucky in 2012 – became national champions.
The Cyclones were led by senior guard Georges Niang, who scored 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting with eight rebounds. Niang became the fifth player in the history of the NCAA tournament to score at least 28 points in three consecutive games, the first since Jimmer Fredette of Brigham Young in 2011. Niang ended his Iowa State career with 2,228 points, second in school history behind Jeff Grayer, who scored 2,502 from 1985-88.
Virginia’s excellent passing display created opportunities for easy points in the interior. The Cavaliers outscored the Cyclones in the paint by a wide margin, 52-36.
Gill’s 23 points, a season high, lifted his tournament average to 20.3 points, nearly seven points above his season average. The surprise came from Tobey, the seven-footer from Monroe, New York. The senior averages 6.9 points per game, but tonight came off the bench to score a season high 18 on 8-of-12 shooting, with seven rebounds.
Virginia senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC player of the year who has averaged 18.6 points this season, was held to 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting. Brogdon said that earlier this season he probably would have continued to shoot rather than seek to involve his teammates. “But we’ve gotten this far because we play as a team,” Brogdon said, “because I defer when other people are playing really well, because other guys defer when I’m playing well, and we just play well together.
“We embrace our pillar of unity,” Brogdon went on, “and I tried to get other guys involved but stay aggressive tonight, and we were able to get the win.”
Brogdon and sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins didn’t seem as surprised by Tobey’s performance as the converging media members. Both asserted that Tobey has been coming on strong since senior night three weeks ago when he logged 20 rebounds in a lopsided win over Louisville.
“When Mike comes out and he’s aggressive and confident and plays like that, the way he’s been playing, we’re another level team,” Brogdon said.
Iowa State coach Steve Prohm conceded physical front line players have been a challenge for the Cyclones all season. “The thing that’s given our team troubles at times is the physicality up front,” Prohm said.
Gill and Tobey took full advantage of this weakness as they physically punished the smaller Cyclone frontcourt. Combined the two made 16 of 22 shots (73 percent) and went 9-for-13 from the foul line.
Virginia’s overall physicality did get the Cyclones into foul trouble in the second half. As Iowa State attempted to mount a late comeback, Niang and Abdel Nader were saddled with foul trouble. Niang, who tried desperately to will his team back into the game, was charged with his fourth foul with more than 13 minutes to play. The Cyclones could not trim the Virginia lead to less than seven points in the second half.
“I probably could have done a better job of putting myself in a better position, being a senior and not putting myself in a position to pick up fouls,” he said. “Obviously that was frustrating, but this is do or die, win or go home, so I really had to figure out a way to get through it…I’m just bummed that we couldn’t continue this run.”
Moving forward, as the Cavaliers take a shot at reaching their first Final Four in 32 years, their defense undoubtedly will remain solid. The key likely will be their ability to continue scoring at a high clip. The team is now 18-0 this season when it scores more than 70 points.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett remembered when this group had a conference record of 2-3 and he hoped to define a season by how close the Cavaliers could come to approaching the possibilities. “I said whatever that line is, I want them to get to it where they can reach their full potential, and where that takes us, it takes us,” Bennett said. “I’ll hold it with open hands, but we’ve got to get to that line and maximize what we have, and that’s what I love about them on the floor, is they’re touching it. They’re getting close to it.”