Virginia is the No. 1 team in the country for a plethora of good reasons. The Cavaliers rank first in the nation defensively, allowing an average of 53.1 points per game. On offense, they give their foes no help with a national-best average of 8.7 turnovers. They went 17-1 in the ACC, with the only blemish a one-point loss in OT.
Virginia’s immediate destiny is a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA Tournament — possibly the overall No. 1 — when the field is announced on Sunday. But there have been questioning whispers about whether this defensive juggernaut is destined for the Final Four, and Friday night’s 64-58 win over fourth-seeded and 19th-ranked Clemson in an ACC Tournament semifinal at Barclays Center amplified some of them.
There were plenty of stretches to reinforce positive opinions about the Cavaliers, of course. In the final 9:32 of the first half, Virginia (30-2) took control with a 19-3 run in which it held the Tigers (23-9) to 0-for-10 shooting. Then there was the 10-0 run early in the second half in which Mamadi Diakite had six points and Kyle Guy four as Virginia took a 44-30 lead with 13:06 to play.
However, there were reasons for some doubt, too. Virginia couldn’t completely stop Clemson, as it was outscored by eight the rest of the way. The Cavs fouled the more athletic Tigers enough to put them on the line 16 times in the second half (Clemson made 14).
Nevertheless, Virginia will make its ninth appearance in the ACC title game on Saturday night against the winner of the late semifinal between Duke and North Carolina. The Cavaliers will be going for their third conference crown and first since 2014.
Guy had 15 points and Devon Hall and Diakite added 10 each for the Cavaliers, but it was truly an ensemble performance. Point guard Ty Jerome had 10 assists that led to 24 points, and 6-10 center Jack Salt had all of his eight points in the second half.
Shelton Mitchell scored 18 to pace the Tigers, but leading scorer Marcquise Reed was held to six points and 2-for-14 shooting. “We made him earn everything,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
While Bennett can sense that some outsiders might have doubts, he believes his team is the right blend of personnel, style and camaraderie.
“This is a complete group. Their unity is as good as I’ve ever coached, and those other teams had pretty good unity,” Bennett said. “We have balance, we have good size and they are relentless in the way they play. That’s the way we have to play to be good. They could play a lot of ways, but this way fits this group of guys and they have embraced it.”
So far, so good.
Virginia-Clemson winner vs. Duke-North Carolina winner,
TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m.