RALEIGH, N.C – Virginia center Mike Tobey took a 3-point shot that left his own teammates incredulous, looking down the bench at coach Tony Bennett to gauge his reaction.
Evan Nolte, a sophomore forward they’ve dubbed “Takeoff” because he dunks “once every two years,” according to senior forward Akil Mitchell, later hammered home a vicious baseline slam that had them all leaping out of their seats with joy.
“I’m like, yeah, we’re playing today, we’re hooping,” Mitchell said, trying to contain a wide grin.
It was that kind of night for the Cavaliers, who defied a wild and unpredictable first weekend at the NCAA tournament. A No. 1 seed and the ACC champion, Virginia had no intention of seeing its memorable season come to an abrupt end.
And so it put together maybe its most complete performance of the season against No. 8 seed Memphis on Sunday at PNC Arena, a decisive 78-60 third-round victory that sends it to the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden in New York on Friday.
The Cavaliers shook off a slow start and imposed their will on the Tigers in a game of contrasting styles. Senior guard Joe Harris scored a game-high 16 points for Virginia, who will face No. 4 seed Michigan State.
“It’s funny. None of this stuff has hit me yet,” said sophomore guard Justin Anderson, who said he’s never ever been to a game at Madison Square Garden, let alone played in one. “We just won a game to go to the Sweet 16. It just feels like another game. Let’s go home and get ready for another one.”
Some shaky transition defense early in the game – a “non-negotiable” as Bennett says – had Memphis ahead 16-15 after a steal by senior guard Joe Jackson and a layup by junior guard Michael Dixon. But then the roof caved in on the Tigers, who were hounded into nine of 10 misses to close the first half.
“They’ve got to be the best defensive team I’ve ever played against in college,” Jackson said. “They way they see the ball, never lose sight of the ball. They help each other on every possession. You will never get an easy lay-up on them.”
And that allowed Virginia to go on a 20-4 run to take over the contest. Everyone contributed. Harris hit a 3-pointer and a layup, Tobey hit a jumper, freshman point guard London Perrantes drilled another 3-pointer and redshirt sophomore forward Malcolm Brogdon hit a pair of free throws and a layup.
Hustle tip ins by Anderson and then redshirt sophomore forward Anthony Gill with just seconds left in the half had the Cavaliers ahead by 15 points and the thousands of Virginia fans who made the trip to Raleigh roaring as their team skipped off the court.
It didn’t get any better for Memphis in the second half. The team hoping to speed up the tempo and force Virginia into an uncomfortable game instead found itself grinding to finish contested shots on almost every possession. At the defensive end, the Tigers had no answer for the Cavaliers’ balanced scoring attack.
“That’s us. We’re a deep team – depth and defense,” Mitchell said. “You never know who it’s going to be on any given night, but when guys can come in and hit shots or make big defensive plays and help us out, that’s how we get rolling.”
And the shots seemed to come from all over the court. When Harris wasn’t bombing 3-pointers, he was beating his man baseline for easy layups – the same shots Memphis was missing with regularity. Freshman forward Austin Nichols, in particular – a player once recruited by Virginia – missed a handful of shots in the paint, including one that bounced off the top of the backboard. It wasn’t the Tigers’ night.
The Cavaliers opened a lead of 26 points in the second half. The final indignity for Memphis was the 3-pointer from the top of the arc by Tobey, the 6-foot-11 center, with 3:39 left. That was his first of the season. It was that kind of night for Virginia. Anderson said he was sure Bennett was a millisecond away from pulling Tobey from the game. But the ball went in. On this night, there was no need.
The Cavaliers are now 30-6 – the first time they’ve won that many games since 1981-82 when they reached the Sweet 16. It is their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1994-95, a year they advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to Arkansas.
That long drought is finally over with a game against imposing – and now healthy – Michigan State looming. But for a moment, the Cavaliers simply basked in the cheers of a partisan crowd in Raleigh with bigger games ahead.
“We did so many things well tonight,” Perrantes said. “We’re showing people this is what we are, this is how we play. When we play our best, it’s scary for other people.”