RALEIGH, N.C. — Entering this NCAA tournament, the ACC had sent at least one team to the regional semifinals for 34 consecutive seasons. Come late Sunday night, that streak hinged on Virginia.
Gone were Duke, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh. Dismissed were Syracuse and North Carolina.
Trumpeted after its recent expansion as the grandest collection of basketball programs ever, the ACC faced the ignominy of not having a Sweet 16 team for the first time since 1979.
Not to fret. With vintage lockdown defense, balanced offense and dominant rebounding, Virginia routed Memphis 78-60 to reach Friday's East Regional semifinals against Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.
“To beat a team of that caliber by how much we beat them by is huge for us,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "We were just rollin’.”
Indeed, given the stakes and moment, the final 26 minutes were arguably the Cavaliers' best stretch of this memorable season. Once Virginia seized a double-digit lead late in the first half, Brogdon, Joe Harris, London Perrantes, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and friends never permitted Memphis even faint hope of a comeback.
In short, U.Va. closed like a champion, leading by at least 13 points and as many as 27 in the second half.
"That’s coaching," sixth man Justin Anderson said. "Every timeout Coach [Tony Bennett] said to continue to impose our will. Continue to do what we do. He kept saying no silly stuff no jacking up shots."
And when Anderson hurried a transition 3-pointer with Virginia comfortably ahead in the second half?
"He said, 'You’re better than that. Get to the rim. They can’t stop the drive,'" Anderson said. "Just little things. We’re up 15, and he could have let that go, but he wanted to make sure we kept playing solid, quality basketball.”
Fittingly, the Cavaliers, the East's top seeds, were playing in an ACC building, N.C. State's PNC Arena. And what better team to sustain the league's streak than its outright regular-season and tournament champion?
Those dual ACC titles earned Virginia (30-6) a No. 1 seed and nearby venue, and man, did its fans take advantage. Joe Giglio, who covers N.C. State for the Raleigh News & Observer, said Sunday's crowd was louder than every Wolfpack home game this season except North Carolina.
Cavaliers faithful were especially leather-lunged as Virginia closed the first half on a 16-2 binge to take a 35-20 lead to the locker room. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Harris and Perrantes fueled the run, with the latter shot set up by Gill's acrobatic block of a Nick King layup.
The sequence highlighted what Bennett mentioned Saturday: His squad is more athletic than most think.
As quick and fast as Memphis? No, but better coached, more disciplined and far more committed to defense.
Virginia's man-to-man D and patient offense downshifted the pace, forcing Memphis to grind for good shots or force quick ones.
Having won the ACC regular season outright for the first time since 1981 and the tournament for the first time since 1976, this was going to be a benchmark season regardless of what transpired in the NCAA tournament. But March is college basketball's paramount month, and exiting before the Sweet 16 would have tarnished the year.
Nothing can do that now.
Lose to Michigan State? Number four seed notwithstanding, Sparty is the consensus choice to win the national championship, and the Cavaliers' first Sweet 16 since 1995 still would be heralded.
"That's fuel to the fire," Brogdon said of the Michigan State love. "It's instant motivation."
But make no mistake, Virginia is capable of derailing not only Michigan State, but also Iowa State or Connecticut in a potential East final Sunday.
Virginia entered Sunday ranked 346th nationally among 351 teams in possessions per game. Memphis was 60th, the numbers courtesy of Ken Pomeroy.
But the Cavaliers were no strangers to the Tigers' pace, having played four teams that play faster than Memphis: Maryland, VCU, North Carolina, Hampton.
Virginia was a combined 3-2 in those contests, splitting two games with Maryland and losing to VCU. A bad omen for Sunday?
Not in the least. With Perrantes the ringleader, the Cavaliers slowed Memphis point guard Joe Jackson, whom Bennett called possibly the quickest opponent Virginia has seen this season. When the Tigers managed to attack the rim, the Cavaliers challenged every shot.
Virginia complemented its defense with one of its best shooting nights of the year (55.6 percent) and five players in double figures. When the Cavaliers shoot that well, anything is possible, and yes, I mean anything.
The Cavaliers' victory Friday over No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina, their first in the NCAAs since 2007, was uneven at best. They trailed for much of the first half, by as many as 10, and didn't take the lead for good until less than nine minutes remained.
Conqueror of Oklahoma State, Gonzaga and Louisville, the latter twice, Memphis possessed the speed and depth to make Virginia regret such a meandering start.
The Cavaliers on Sunday were "way more comfortable," Brogdon said. "I think the first half of the (Coastal Carolina) game is where all our jitters came out, and we left (them) on the floor. ... Tonight we just came out and played. We didn’t worry about getting beat, we didn’t worry about seeding, didn’t worry about expectations.”
As the clock ticked toward zeros, Virginia fans chanted, "ACC, ACC, ACC," and "Sweet 16, Sweet 16, Sweet 16," and, much to the head coach's embarrassment, "Tony Bennett, Tony Bennett, Tony Bennett."
Bennett said Saturday that the teams' contrasting tempos created an exciting challenge for him and his team.
"Can this system, can our togetherness hold up against that kind of speed and quickness?" he said. "And we'll find out tomorrow."
That we did.