- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. — When putting together a puzzle, the final remaining open spaces can be a conundrum. Certain pieces have been set aside — this will go there later, that over here — for when the end comes. In the assembler’s head is a map to the complete picture.

Before Virginia beat Butler, 77-69, on Saturday night to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three seasons, the Cavaliers had determined where most of their pieces fit. London Perrantes would trail Butler’s shooter, Kellen Dunham. Malcolm Brogdon, ACC defensive player of the year, would have a barrel-chested duel with Roosevelt Jones. Bench depth allowed them to rotate wing players on Butler’s second-leading scorer, Kelan Martin.

But, there was an ill fit when Virginia tried to press all the pieces together. It couldn’t figure out how to handle spelling bee stumper Andrew Chrabascz.

Chrabascz is a junior who averages 10.2 points per game. He has some range, some off-the-dribble moves, some post play. On the list of concerns, he’s part of the oh-by-the-way portion.

By halftime, even if they could not pronounce Chrabascz, Virginia was more aware of who he was. He had 12 points. He missed once. The Cavaliers trailed by two. Hints of here-we-go-again hovered in PNC Arena, a decidedly pro-Virginia establishment during the game.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s first attempt at adaptation was a catastrophe. He sent 7-foot Mike Tobey onto the court to play alongside 6-foot-8 forward Anthony Gill early in the second half. Tobey was assigned to cover Chrabascz. In 1:30, Chrabascz made two 3-pointers, then scored and was fouled by the Cavaliers’ big man. Tobey walked to the bench with his hands at his side. Brogdon came over a few seconds later with his index finger pointing at his chest.

“I think that was the game-changer right there,” Perrantes said.

“We had to stretch, we had to do some unconventional things,” Bennett said.

So, short 20 pounds, Brogdon went into the post with Chrabascz. Butler’s unexpected weapon tried to bang into him, pivot around him. Brogdon held his ground. The game was altered.

Chrabascz scored one point, on a free throw, in the final 16 minutes of the game. He had 24 points prior. Virginia eventually pushed out its lead to nine points, then untethered itself from a pragmatic Butler team in the final minute of play. Next Friday night in Chicago, the top-seeded Cavaliers will play No. 4 seed Iowa State in the Sweet 16. The Cyclones were an emphatic winner on Saturday, sending Arkansas-Little Rock, and its dry-erase board punching coach, Chris Beard, home from the tournament, 78-61.

“At this point, everything is just relief to move on,” Tobey said. “Every game is so hard fought, you’re just lucky to still be in the tournament.”

And, get this: Brogdon even smiled during the game. So often stifling emotion that he’s known for yawning before tipoff, Brogdon let loose late in the game following a score by Gill. It’s not a table-flipping outburst or jumping onto the scorer’s table and throwing a fist. But, a flash of teeth is progress.

Moving Brogdon to guard Chrabascz also compelled Bennett to use a four-guard lineup for the remainder of the game once the failed Tobey-Gill experiment received last rites. Virginia was more spread out, allowing expansive space for Gill in the post or Brogdon to dribble by Jones with frequency. It had used the arrangement earlier in the season against Clemson. Against Butler, the mathematical results were staggering.

Virginia shot 73.1 percent in the second half. It scored 54 points in the final 20 minutes after laboring to a meager 23 in the first 20 minutes. From 2-point range, it shot 18 for 21, 85.7 percent, for the half. That rate can be a challenge when unopposed, let alone in an NCAA tournament game. The proficient shot making was Virginia’s second-best shooting half of an NCAA tournament game in school history. The Cavaliers shot 73.3 percent, 11 for 15, in second half against NC State on March 26, 1983. Bennett was 13 years old then.

After Virginia practice ended on Friday, phone checks revealed that No. 2 seed Michigan State had lost. Its NCAA tournament nemesis was banished, and along with it, a chance for the Cavaliers to dispose of the Spartans themselves.

“We’re kind of upset we didn’t get the revenge aspect,” Perrantes said. “We just got to take it for what it is, keep playing.”

Perrantes and Tobey were aware of the carnage spread through the rest of the Midwest Region, and elsewhere, on Friday, when ex-teammate Paul Jesperson made a halfcourt shot to win a game for Northern Iowa at the buzzer. Tobey said after Saturday night’s win, he could name all the remaining teams, touting himself as a “big NCAA tournament fan.”

“This is why everyone loves it,” Tobey said. “Anyone can go down at any moment. That’s why it’s scary, but also a lot of fun to watch.”

Virginia made a key change that helped it creep away from the flamethrower taken to its quadrant of bracket. There was no rejuvenation of Butler’s little-guy story. Nor was there another Cavaliers loss to a distant opposing seed to explain. Just another step. Chicago turns out to be the right fit.

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