CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Virginia men’s basketball team sat in the locker room in Madison Square Garden following a two-point loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 last season, the Cavaliers were sure to let the emotions of the defeat sink in.
“I remember in the locker room, everybody just said, ‘Remember how this feels,’” Virginia junior forward Anthony Gill said.
Misery from that defeat lingered all offseason, and now the Cavaliers will get another shot at Michigan State on Sunday in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
No. 2 seed Virginia defeated No. 15 seed Belmont, 79-67, on Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena to set up the rematch with the seventh-seeded Spartans — a 70–63 winner over No. 10 seed Georgia earlier in the day.
“I think this isn’t going to be a revenge game, just us going out there and do what we do,” Gill said. “I think everybody’s hungry to go to the next round and wants to keep moving on so I think we’re ready for the challenge and we’re going to go out there and do it.”
The win over Belmont (22-11) lifted the Cavaliers to another 30-win season. Virginia (30-3) has now reached that victory total in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history.
It didn’t come easy.
The Bruins cut a 14-point deficit to 62-60 on a 3-pointer by junior guard Craig Bradshaw, who scored a game-high 25 points, with 4:37 left in the game.
But the Cavaliers closed the game on a 19-9 spurt. They were propelled by a key jumper by London Perrantes with the shot clock running down to push the lead back to 64-60. The Bruins never threatened again, but Virginia coach Tony Bennett wasn’t comfortable until the final 30 seconds.
“I don’t know if nervous is the right word,” Bennett said of his mindset in the final minutes. “I knew we were going to have to make some plays, some stops and free throws, but you’re never safe when you a play a team like that, that has the big-shot ability that can score in spurts and hit kind of unlimited range shots.”
The Cavaliers had an advantage on the Bruins inside and that manifested itself on the free-throw line. Virginia shot 25 free throws, compared to six for Belmont, and connected on 21 of those attempts.
“I think that’s pretty astonishing that we shot them like that,” Virginia junior guard Malcolm Brogdon said.
Brogdon paced the Cavaliers with 22 points, including 16 in the first half. Gill added 16 points and junior guard Justin Anderson came off the bench and delivered 15 points.
It was Anderson’s third game since returning from a broken finger and appendectomy and was the most effective the Westmoreland County native has been in his return. He didn’t score in Virginia’s previous two games.
“I don’t think he ever lost confidence but to see him get his flow back and rhythm back was great for us and great for him, too,” Gill said.
The Cavaliers may need their full array of weapons hitting on all cylinders against Michigan State. The Spartans (21-11) have won nine of their past 12 games after a slow start and two of those defeats were close calls with Wisconsin, the No. 1 seed in the West Region.
The Spartans are typically fixtures in the Sweet 16 and beyond, and they turned back the Cavaliers, 61–59, a year ago.
“We’re going from a master coach in [Belmont coach Rick Byrd] to one of the greatest coaches in [Michigan State’s Tom Izzo],” Bennett said. “Great respect for that program, how it’s built, the physicality, the soundness, the toughness. We know we’ll have to be at our best.”
The Cavaliers had stretches of that type of play against the Bruins. But they fell behind 20-17 before a 13-0 run gave them a 30-20 lead with 7:47 left in the first half. Virginia held a 40-32 advantage at halftime.
The Cavaliers built their second-half lead to 51-37 before the Bruins stormed back again. Bradshaw hit one 3-pointer off the glass to pull his team within 60-57 and was gaining confidence with every made shot.
But Byrd said Virginia “made winning plays in the last three minutes” to advance, end the Bruins’ season and set up a date with the Spartans.
Bennett said Friday’s game could serve his team well going forward.
“It was good to be in a game like that,” Bennett said. “Our young men have been in a lot of games like that where we had to outlast and stay in there and make some plays and even overcome some of our mistakes.”