CHARLOTTESVILLE — No wonder Notre Dame coach Mike Brey considers Virginia the class of ACC basketball this season. The Cavaliers are the only team to beat his Fighting Irish by more than 14 points, and they've done it twice.
Saturday's sequel, a 70-49 knockout at John Paul Jones Arena, included Virginia's most impressive half of the season, a post-intermission clinic that saw the Cavaliers shoot 76.2 percent from the field and commit two meager turnovers. During one flawless stretch, Virginia scored on 15 consecutive possessions to ignite a 25-0 binge that lasted nearly nine minutes.
"They're really good," Brey said. "They're really, really good. I think they're the best team in the league."
Brey was just getting warmed up, and when a reporter suggested that the 14th-ranked Cavaliers (23-5, 14-1 ACC) were winning with less-than-top-shelf talent, he quickly differed.
"They may be right there (in the conference) talent-wise," Brey said. "I think people underestimate how talented they are. They're so physical, really physical. They've got great strength at every position. …
"More than any team in the league they really know who they are on both ends of the floor. I just think they're a really confident group. They've had games like this where they look like they're on the ropes and all of a sudden they have an explosion. And today was a nuclear explosion."
With John Paul Jones himself in the house Saturday, Joe Harris launched the first warhead, a right-wing 3-pointer that broke a 43-all tie with 11:06 remaining. Later, guard Malcolm Brogdon, the embodiment of the strength Brey mentioned, muscled through a hard foul by Eric Atkins to convert a layup and old-fashioned three-point play.
So enthused was teammate Darion Atkins by the play that he wrapped Brogdon in a bear hug.
But Virginia's defining moment, as it often does, centered on sixth man Justin Anderson. His block of Zach Auguste's attempted dunk started a fast break that Anthony Gill finished with a dunk.
Most of the 14,114 in attendance came unhinged.
"The crowd here is, wow," Brey said. "I don’t know if we’ve played – this may be the loudest place we’ve played. We played at Iowa, played at the Carrier Dome. It’s a fabulous home-court atmosphere."
The sequence was reminiscent of Virginia's most recent home game, a 68-63 victory over Maryland in which an Anderson block and subsequent Harris 3-pointer in transition was the turning point.
"Those are the things we call winning plays," Anderson said.
"That's how fragile a game can be," Brey said. "For 30 minutes I really liked what we were doing. Then we get the dunk blocked, and they dunk on the other end, and the whole ceiling caves in."
In that regard, Saturday was the polar opposite of Virginia's 68-53 victory at Notre Dame last month. The Cavaliers dominated throughout on that evening and never trailed.
Saturday they defended with their usual grit, limiting the Fighting Irish (14-14, 5-10) to 38.9 percent shooting. But it was their season-best 63.6 percent shooting that separated this performance.
Forwards Akil Mitchell and Gill scored 15 points each and shot a combined 12-of-13. Brogdon contributed 13 points and game-highs of seven rebounds and six assists, while freshman point guard London Perrantes had no turnovers for the seventh time in the last eight games.
The victory is the Cavaliers' 11th straight, all against ACC opponents. Virginia leads the league by a game-and-a-half over Syracuse (25-2, 12-2) and is positioned to win the regular season outright for only the second time. The first was 1981, when sophomore Ralph Sampson carried the Cavaliers to the Final Four.
"That would be huge," Brogdon said of joining the '81 squad. "I'm not even sure the rest of the guys on my team know that. I didn't know that until you just said it. That would be a huge accomplishment, really be unbelievable."
Three regular-season games remain: Wednesday versus Miami, Saturday against Syracuse, both at JPJ, and then the following Sunday at Maryland, the final ACC game ever on the College Park campus.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett understands what is at hand.
His pregame message to his players: "I said, 'You've earned the right to have this tremendous opportunity in front of you this game.' … I just looked 'em in the eye and I said, 'Are you going to waste it, or are you going to make the most of it?'
"I'm so thankful to be in this spot because it has been a while."
Brey is right. Virginia is the ACC's best. That doesn't mean the Cavaliers won't lose to Syracuse and/or Maryland. But right now, no one in the league is playing better.
"You feel like everything's going right," Brogdon said. "You're playing with supreme confidence."