Virginia capable of much more after ACC championship

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Cavaliers win first title since 1976.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Justin Anderson is the consummate ham, a natural performer with the panache, eloquence and wit to command a basketball court, locker room or social occasion.

But when ACC commissioner John Swofford attempted to hand Anderson the conference's basketball championship trophy Sunday afternoon, Anderson immediately deferred. He knew where Virginia's first such hardware in 38 years belonged.

So fittingly and joyously, seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, the sterling remnants of coach Tony Bennett's first Cavaliers recruiting class, lifted the trophy for the thousands of Virginia faithful in Greensboro Coliseum to see.

"I didn't want that (trophy)," said Anderson, a sophomore and the ACC's sixth man of the year. "I knew exactly where it belonged. It belonged in … Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell's hands. Those guys put us on their backs. They believed.

"A special thing about those guys, too: They had (four) guys in their class that transferred … and they did a great job sticking it out and coming together and just leading the team to where we are right now. Those are the guys who should hoist that trophy and get that image, because that's a memory that they'll never forget."

Difficult as this may be, set aside critiques of the NCAA tournament bracket unveiled hours after Virginia's victory. Interrupt analysis of the Cavaliers' Final Four prospects.

Instead, allow Sunday's achievement to marinate for just a moment.

Virginia's first ACC tournament championship since 1976 comes in Bennett's fifth season, appropriate for a coach who preaches patience and program foundation rather than quick fixes.

Moreover, the title came in a bruising and breathtaking 72-63 conquest of Duke, the conference's gold standard.

"I admire them," said Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils' Hall of Fame coach. "I think they're a helluva basketball team. They've had a great season, great kids, unselfish. They're one of the best teams in the country. They've done that in a consistent manner."

Yes they are and yes they have.

But don't forget where they were, fresh off an 11th-place ACC finish, when Bennett arrived from Washington State. In each of Bennett's years, Virginia has won more ACC games than the previous season, and this team figured to continue the trend.

But few, if any, expected a crescendo, a 16-2 ACC record, the program's first outright regular-season title since 1981, a three-game sweep of the league tournament and a No. 1 NCAA East Regional seed.

Anyone questioning that seed needs to cue up Sunday's victory over Duke.

The Cavaliers (28-6) countered every Blue Devils punch, of which there were many. Even when Duke freshman Jabari Parker was auditioning for the NBA draft with stepbacks, post spins and poster-worthy dunks, Virginia didn't flinch.

And the beauty of it, the beauty in the way the Cavaliers have played all season, is that you never know who it will be. Duke had one viable option: Parker. Virginia had Harris and Mitchell and Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey and …

"We knew we couldn't do it one-on-one," Anderson said. "Those guys are a lot of great one-on-one players. Collectively, we're a great team. So it had to be team against one-on-one."

With a championship game in the balance, a championship for which fans have long pined, with Greensboro Coliseum at full-throated roar, Virginia scored on nine consecutive possessions and 16 of its last 18.

And that's what separates this team from Bennett's others. All of his squads have defended fiercely. This bunch, especially in a pinch, can score.

"It's hard to play 35 seconds of defense against us," point guard London Perrantes said. "We're always running off screens. You're going to get hit. It's going to wear you down. … I feel like they started to break down at the end, and that's what gave us open looks."

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