- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2016

CHICAGO — At halftime, the unraveling seemed unthinkable. All of Virginia’s staples were on point then, a period that an hour later felt like a lost era. It defended viciously. Its offense pulled apart the Syracuse zone from the outside in. A rally for the Orange, after such an abysmal half against a veteran and top-seeded Virginia team, was almost unreasonable to suggest.

Yet, Virginia walked off the floor with drooped heads after Syracuse came back for a 68-62 win in the Elite Eight on Sunday night. The Orange, the No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region, celebrated wildly following its hard-to-believe rally against Virginia, which was previously 68-0 under Tony Bennett when leading by 10 points at halftime. It was up 14 points at the break on Sunday, spurring checks for flights to Houston, the host city for the Final Four. At the horn, all viewers, the joyous and crushed, wondered what had just happened.

“Just being so close to something you wanted so long, that’s the biggest shock,” Anthony Gill said.

Virginia’s season closed with a mood-crunching thud, spreading the usual sorrow through a locker room, ending one of the greatest three-year runs in program history. Malcolm Brogdon and his fellow seniors leave having accomplished things at the school not done since the early 1980s. They tied for the most wins for a senior class. In the last three seasons, the Cavaliers won more games than they had in any other three-year period. It’s little solace after being stopped again in the tournament as a heavy favorite.

For three consecutive seasons, Virginia has been ousted by a lower seed. No. 4 seed Michigan State toppled the Cavaliers in 2014, then again in 2015 as a No. 7 seed. This time, it was the lowest-seeded Syracuse team coached by Jim Boeheim in his 40 seasons at the school.

“Did anyone here think that would happen?” Boeheim asked from a stage on center court.

There was no evidence for anyone to answer Boeheim in the affirmative. An initially stagnant Virginia offense was fixed by London Perrantes’ shooting in the first half. He made five 3-pointers before halftime, working varied celebrations as emotion grew with each make.

Syracuse made one first-half 3-pointer in the first 20 minutes. Freshman Tyler Lydon lost a shoe, pump faked, then scored. The make was so rare — the Orange had eight turnovers and made eight field goals in the half — it was not out of line to suggest then that Syracuse may have been more effective if everyone was a one-shoe shooter. Only two of Syracuse’s first-half field goals were from the initial halfcourt offense. The rest were putbacks or on the fast break. It trailed at the half, 35-21.

Boeheim plotted. If Syracuse could move within 10 points, he would turn on the press. He also altered the Orange’s offensive strategy. The ball screens Syracuse used often in the first half, an approach Virginia gobbles up with hard-hedging help defense, were set aside. He opened space for his prime players to work alone. Virginia could not stop it.

If Virginia had one mark, it was its mechanical processing of the good and bad. Led by Brogdon’s flatlined expressions and Bennett’s limited reactions, the Cavaliers were built through older players who souls were taught not quiver when the tension rose.

Yet, Sunday night, they cracked in an odd way. Virginia was often able to beat the press in the backcourt, only to be foiled when it had an advantage going to the rim. Gill traveled. Lydon blocked a shot. Each time, Syracuse came back to score.

“In reality, they missed some plays they would normally make,” Boeheim said.

By the end of the game, the first-half problems Syracuse went through appeared to have taken place on another planet. The Orange went on a stunning 25-4 run to pull ahead 64-58 with 3:27 to play. Syracuse drove and drove to the rim, putting Virginia in early foul trouble in the second half. Freshman Malachi Richardson could not be contained by the esteemed Virginia defense and Brogdon, the ACC defensive player of the year. For his work, Richardson, just a freshman, was named the Midwest regional most valuable player after scoring 23 points.

“We turned the ball over when they started press — uncharacteristically,” Perrantes said. “They made some plays, some tough shots. It came down to turnovers and them making plays.”

Virginia will look distinctly different next year. Brogdon, Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte will be gone. Perrantes will move into a role of senior point guard. The likelihood of the Cavaliers making it back atop the ACC, into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed and to the Elite Eight will be low.

Brogdon hopes to play in the NBA. Gill will be married on April 8, just four days after the national title game. The timing is not a coincidence. Brogdon and Perrantes will be next to him when he says his vows. Former Virginia associate head coach Ritchie McKay will officiate the wedding. Their season will be over, short, again, of where they expected it to end. The rest of life, begrudgingly, will begin.

“Sometimes we get caught up so much in playing the game, trying to win every game,” Brogdon said. “Being so focused — I’m a very locked-in guy — rather than just smelling the roses. Now, we can smell the roses. We can enjoy what we established.”

Family members sat in small pods in United Center’s near-vacated stands after the game. They were a few rows up from what was the Virginia bench, a place of joy and hope for half of the game. As the Cavaliers players walked out of tunnel, their emotions finally corralled, warmups and backpacks back on, the sound of light applause greeted their emergence. The clapping was the kind that acknowledges something has gone devastatingly wrong.

Workers rapidly pulled up wires and apart temporary walls. Tape on the floor where Virginia went through an out-of-character crumbling just 45 minutes earlier was yanked up with all the grace that Virginia’s season was ripped away from it. There was nowhere left to go but home.

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