NEW YORK — The many Virginia basketball faithful who boarded Saturday’s 3 a.m. southbound train out of Penn Station were neither angry nor disconsolate. Weary, perhaps, after the Cavaliers’ exhausting NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State, but quick to smile, more encouraged than disheartened.
Some two hours earlier, the 61-59 East Regional semifinal verdict at Madison Square Garden raw and fresh, sixth man Justin Anderson took a similarly sage view.
“You do have to see the bigger picture,” he said, “and I think that’s what’s keeping me strong, is seeing the bigger picture. There’s a lot more to life than just a loss. It hurts, for sure. But you stumble, you get up, you learn from it and you move on.”
Anderson, a sophomore, has the luxury of dozens more games in orange and blue. Senior linchpins Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell do not.
“We formed such a bond,” Harris said. “This is the closest team I’ve even been a part of. Coaches, players, trainers, managers, it goes down the line. … It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. It’s hard to get yourself together, keep your composure after the game, because it starts to sink in.”
Harris and the top-seeded Cavaliers (30-7) were not at their best Friday night, especially on offense. They shot their lowest percentage, 35.1, since a Jan. 3 victory at Florida State, and missed several opportunities at the rim.
But that, in large measure, was because Michigan State (29-8), with the possible exception of Wisconsin, is the best team Tony Bennett’s Virginia squad played this season. Forwards Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne combined for 40 points on 14-of-28 field-goal shooting, 10-of-12 from the free-throw line, extraordinary in such a defensive fistfight.
“Coach Bennett told us, whoever wins this game right here between us two will go to the Final Four,” forward Anthony Gill said, “and I believe that 100 percent.”
No matter how the Spartans fare in Sunday’s regional final versus Connecticut, nothing can tarnish the game’s fierce quality or the season’s notable achievements.
The Cavaliers owned the ACC from the start of league play, defeating Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Duke and North Carolina on the way to regular-season and conference tournament championships. They reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995, a 19-year drought they are unlikely to repeat.
And Virginia was oh-so-close to attaining more. The Cavaliers outrebounded the perennially salty Spartans, and when guards Evan Nolte and London Perrantes scored on rare, for them, stickbacks, you wondered if this would be Virginia’s night.
Gill, who played on after rolling an ankle, lamented “little mistakes, a turnover here, a turnover there, a missed shot.”
Tense games can haunt you with what-ifs, and there were many for the Cavaliers. But the one sequence I noted came with Virginia leading 40-36 midway through the second half. Harris missed a lonesome-open 3-pointer followed by at-the-rim misses by Mike Tobey, Mitchell and Malcolm Brogdon.
Those three possessions — the Tobey and Mitchell misfires were on the same trip — started a 13-2 binge that gave Michigan State a seven-point cushion.
“We knew it would take a special performance,” Bennett said.
It took a special performance from Michigan State, too, and Spartans coach Tom Izzo knew it.
“Tony Bennett has done an incredible job in a few years there,” he said, “and his team played so hard and physical and tough. And as he said to me, and I agree with him, it’s the way the game should be played.”
As they did in Greensboro, N.C., at the ACC tournament and last weekend at the NCAAs in Raleigh, N.C., Virginia fans turned a neutral court into their own, creating a home vibe for the Cavaliers.
“It was difficult (to hear),” Izzo said. “The place was hopping. I thought it was a hell of an atmosphere in there.”
Friday was Michigan State’s sixth regional semifinal in seven years, a remarkable run given college basketball’s parity. Like any other program, Virginia is unlikely to match that consistency, but unlike most, the Cavaliers are stocked well enough to dream big.
Replacing Mitchell’s defense and Harris’ selflessness is problematic, but Brogdon, Gill, Tobey, Anderson, Perrantes, Nolte and Darion Atkins give Bennett ample pieces.
“I’m thankful that for four years I got to be a part of watching them grow from boys to men and turn our program around,” Bennett said of Harris and Mitchell. “And I always tell them, ‘A desire accomplished is sweet to the soul,’ and they left a legacy that they won’t forget.”
Anderson certainly will recall.
“We just wanted it for each other, more than anything,” he said. “We didn’t want the fame that came with it. We didn’t want any of the extra stuff that came with it. We didn’t want (any) handouts. We didn’t want teachers giving us excuses back at school to miss class. … We just wanted to do it the right way, because we were capable. That’s why I hurt.”