CHARLOTTESVILLE – Virginia clinched a share of the ACC regular-season championship Saturday. And unlike so many things this up-and-down season, it came relatively easily.
Seniors Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin each scored 16 and the 13th-ranked Cavaliers found their shooting touch in a 75-60 win over Louisville on Saturday, sending themselves into next week’s ACC tournament off back-to-back wins.
“A surreal feeling. It’s something that I can tell my kids about, my nieces and nephews, and tell them I was part of something special here in Charlottesville,” said senior reserve guard Chase Coleman, who brought the crowd to its feet when he sank a 3-pointer with 30 seconds to go in his final home game. “A great feeling. If I could do it over again, I would. I wouldn’t change a bit.”
It’s the sixth time in the last 10 years Virginia has won or shared the regular-season title and gives it the No. 2 seed next week in Greensboro, where it will open play in the quarterfinals Thursday, after a double bye.
UVa (23-6, 15-5 ACC) will share the league title with the winner of Saturday night’s Pittsburgh-Miami game. By virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker, that game’s winner will have the No. 1 seed.
A year after finishing sixth in the conference and playing in the NIT, coach Tony Bennett and his players climbed a ladder and cut down the nets at John Paul Jones Arena.
“It was special with what’s at stake,” Bennett said. “You’ve gotta last. To be able to be one of those teams, after 20 games, to get a championship, I’m very thankful.”
Saturday, the Cavaliers didn’t reach the dominant level they played at in a pair of high-profile wins over Baylor and Illinois in Las Vegas in November, wins that elevated expectations for this year’s team, but they did turn in one of their best all-around performances in conference play this season, leading from start to finish.
After struggling to hit shots for the past two weeks, and going 2-2 in that stretch, Virginia’s offense got a get-right performance, shooting 58% from the floor and hitting six of its 18 attempts from 3-point range. It even turned in a strong showing at the free throw line, going 11 for 14.
“That little slump we had where we weren’t making shots and I don’t think we were defending the way we usually do, it was kind of meant to happen,” Coleman said. “Just for us to, ya know, time to turn the gears back up and figure this out. I feel like the worst part of our season is already past and we can only go up from there.”
Bennett said the team started to get things going during the second half of last Saturday’s loss at North Carolina. It snapped a two-game losing streak by beating Clemson on Tuesday, then Louisville Saturday, both of those victories coming at home where the team went 15-1 this season, including a 10-0 mark in league home games.
“I think the last two games were a step in the right direction,” Bennett said. “And I think it started at North Carolina, the effort that was given. The result wasn’t there, but I thought we played with the right kind of tenacity.”
UVa, 7-2 in games decided by five point or fewer or in overtime this season, won an ACC game by double figures for the fifth time, and first time since taking out North Carolina State 63-50 on Feb. 7.
Before the game, Virginia recognized five seniors ahead of the regular-season finale – Coleman, Franklin, Gardner, center Francisco Caffaro and forward Ben Vander Plas.
Franklin, Caffaro and Coleman have the option of coming back next season. Franklin said this week he has not made a decision.
Fifth-year senior Kihei Clark did not take part, having gone through his Senior Day ceremony last season, before deciding to return for his extra year of eligibility.
Clark knocked down a corner 3 just 19 seconds into the game, setting the stage for a crisp offensive performance.
Franklin, who said he hasn’t made any decision about next year yet, scored eight points in the first 7:41 of play.
The Cavaliers shot 50% from the floor, went 5 for 12 from 3-point range and assisted on all 13 of their made baskets in the first half.
Defensively, they held the Cardinals to 33.3% shooting and forced eight turnovers before the break, taking a 36-20 lead to the locker room.
Louisville (4-27, 2-18) got the lead down to 13 three separate times in the second half, but never really threatened to get back into the game.
After the game, Bennett presented Clark with a ball commemorating Clark’s plethora of school and ACC records. Clark could be seen on the videoboard smiling and telling teammates, “I’m old.”