CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The worst game of Virginia's season was also the one that sparked the Cavaliers' turnaround.
Virginia got pounded 87-52 at Tennessee on Dec. 30 — and the drubbing was on national television. The Volunteers scorched Virginia's defense, making 11 of 18 3-point shots, led by 22 points at halftime and kept pouring it on.
In the Cavaliers' locker room afterward, the chatter about what to do began.
Senior Joe Harris said the discussions continued for the next few days, with the Cavaliers realizing they weren't as talented as some had suggested. The reality also set it that they had no shot at getting the most out of their talent if they continued to play as individuals.
"We tried doing it our way where, I wouldn't say guys we were being selfish, but it was more of an individual approach offensively and defensively." Harris said this week as he and the Cavaliers began preparing to return to the NCAA tournament as Atlantic Coast Conference champions and a No. 1 seed. They face Coastal Carolina on Friday night in Raleigh, N.C.
"It was humbling," Harris said. "We got blown out and I think we realized that things needed to change."
With ACC play about to begin, there was still time.
The change started with Harris, an all-ACC first-team selection as a junior and the focal point of most opposing defenses, and fellow senior Akil Mitchell. Both were scoring less than they had the previous season, and were still learning adjusted roles.
It extended to guard Malcolm Brogdon, the floor leader, and Anthony Gill, the transfer from South Carolina finally eligible to play after sitting out a season, and took off with the development of freshman point guard London Perrantes. His steadiness with the ball belied his youth and inexperience, and allowed Brogdon to play the scoring guard.
"It was a process I had to buy into for sure," said Mitchell, the team's top rebounder. "It wasn't fun for a little while, but I think every guy on this team has had to buy into that and that's something special about this team. We all put those egos aside and said we have to do what is best for this team, whether that's take less shots, if that's play a different role. That sacrifice was necessary, and once we did that is when you saw our game take another step, and that's more satisfying than anything else."
When Virginia opened ACC play five days later, they emerged as a virtually different team and won 78-66 at Florida State, their first of three straight victories. After a last-second 69-65 loss at Duke, they won 13 in a row before stumbling at Maryland. But after the loss to the Terrapins, the Cavaliers regrouped and won their first ACC tournament in 38 years.
Harris was named the most outstanding player of the ACC tournament, but Mitchell, Brogdon and Gill also played well enough to garner consideration to claim that hardware.
"You look at Akil's defensive performance in that (Duke) game," coach Tony Bennett said of Mitchell's effort on Blue Devils' star Jabari Parker while scoring seven points and pulling down a season-high 15 rebounds. "That was a special one for sure. But that's the balance, that's the depth, and that's what makes a team have a chance to win a championship like they just experienced. I would have had a hard time picking that one."
Harris, especially, has drawn praise from opposing coaches all season.
A 16.3 points-per-game scorer last season, he'll take an 11.7 average into Friday's second round game against Coastal Carolina, a reduced role that several coaches have highlighted for its unselfishness.
Harris scoffs, saying this year was "the best basketball season of my life."
And one that could lead to even bigger things for the Cavaliers.
"We knew we could be good if we came together and played with great chemistry, but we didn't know if that would actually happen," said Brogdon, whose 12.6 scoring average leads Virginia.
"You see a lot of teams with a lot of talent where that doesn't really happen, and they don't come together. We have, and we've put ourselves in a really good position right now to take advantage of a great opportunity."
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