NEW YORK — Time was when NCAA tournament regional semifinals bordered on routine for Virginia basketball. Ralph Sampson and Jeff Lamp. Othell Wilson and Olden Polynice. Bryant Stith and Junior Burrough. Terry Holland and Jeff Jones.
Friday marked the Cavaliers' first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995, and here in Madison Square Garden they encountered their mirror image: a Michigan State team and program built on fierce defense and the Midwestern toughness of its coach.
And on this night, for these 40 bruising minutes, the Spartans were better. They won this excruciating East Regional semifinal 61-59 and will meet Connecticut on Sunday for a berth in the Final Four.
"This was a joy to coach in this game," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "It was hard-fought, it was high-level. ... The quality of the game, as far as how we have to play to be successful against a team that is playing some of the best basketball in the country, nothing to hang your head about."
The game turned when Michigan State (29-8) briefly but definitively solved Virginia's defense, fueling a 13-2 binge that produced a 49-42 lead.
The Cavaliers (30-7) didn't have quite enough offense to overcome, ending a landmark season that included the ACC's outright regular-season title and tournament championship. They exited as you figured they would, proudly and reluctantly, hitting clutch shots late and making Tom Izzo's Spartans earn their way to Sunday.
Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes. Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson. They will long regret the result and poor shooting (35.1 percent) that caused it, but never the season.
Their defense at its swarming best, the Cavaliers held the Spartans without a field goal during the first five-plus minutes of the second half. Nine times Michigan State had possession, and all it could muster was a Branden Dawson free throw.
Virginia crawled to a 4-point lead, but no way this was going to turn one-sided. The Spartans lost regional semifinals in 2012 and '13, and the core of those teams — Dawson, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling — remained intact this season.
No chance they were going quietly, and with Dawson and Payne combining for 40 points and 15 rebounds, they survived. They survived after Anderson's cut-throat 3-pointer knotted the game at 51, setting the stage for the night's largest shot: Payne's left-wing three that gave Michigan State the lead for good.
"I’m rooting for Michigan State to go on and win it all," Anderson said. "They’re a very deserving team, and the reason why I say that is because they seem like they get along and they do it the way we do it. ...
"Their discipline reminded me of us.”
Michigan State made seven of its first 10 shots, shredding Virginia inside and out, and racing to a 21-11 lead that prompted a Bennett timeout midway through the first half. The Cavaliers overcame a similarly sluggish start a week ago against Coastal Carolina, but this was no Coastal Carolina on the opposite bench.
Virginia needed to rediscover its defensive mettle, in a hurry. That the Cavaliers did, and when Gill scored on a goal-tend, they took their first lead at 25-23.
“They threw a Mike Tyson punch,” Anderson said. “They threw a heavy one, and we did a great job responding.”
Indeed, they did. This one was going to the wire and well past midnight.
Sampson carried the Cavaliers to the Sweet 16 or beyond in 1981, '82 and '83, and the program sustained that success with similar runs in 1984 and '89 under Holland, in 1993 and '95 under Jones, the team's point guard during the Sampson era.
That's seven regional semifinals in 15 years, as many as an ACC program not named Duke or North Carolina could have hoped for back then.
But subsequent years were not kind to Virginia. For varying reasons, Jones, Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao could not return the Cavaliers to consistent prominence.
Bennett, Leitao's successor, needed time. Time to install the peculiar combination of pack-the-paint defense and patient offense that served his father so well at Green Bay and the University of Wisconsin, and that fueled the son's career at Washington State.
Washington State had not advanced two rounds in the tournament since 1941 when Bennett guided the Cougars to the 2008 Sweet 16 in Charlotte, N.C. Like this Virginia team, that WSU squad was stingy on defense, subtly efficient on offense and encountered an iconic opponent in the regional semifinals.
Led by ACC player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina dusted Washington State 68-47 en route to the Final Four. One year later, Virginia fired Leitao and hired Bennett.
Would Bennett's system play in the ACC? I asked then-North Carolina assistant Jerod Haase, who had scouted the Cougars before the regional semifinal."There's no question that style can work in any conference," he said . "It's obviously worked in the Pac-10, and the Pac-10 is a pretty strong conference as well. So I don't think it's an issue of can it work in a certain conference or certain area of the country. If he's able to get the personnel that can play his brand of basketball, the sky's the limit."
Seems he was right, though the sky will have to wait for another season.
"I didn’t want it to end," Bennett said of the season. "They really were a joy to coach. … They had something special, and for them to grasp it, play at the level they did, and sustain it from Florida State (in early January) until now really is remarkable. That’s what I look at, and that’s the measure to me, that these young men got the most out of their game."