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Sports Today for March 27, 2014 / March 27, 2014
Near the end of Virginia’s rout of Memphis Sunday, the Cavalier friendly crowd in Raleigh started chanting Tony Bennett’s name.

No question, Bennett, with the help of a very competent staff and the maturity of the current Cavaliers, has achieved a remarkable turnaround for the U.Va. program. The Cavaliers, now elevated to rarified air at 30-6, will challenge Michigan State tomorrow night in the Big Apple in a loaded NCAA tournament East Regional.

Iowa State, which repelled a gallant effort by North Carolina, meets Connecticut in the other half of a basketball purist’s delight. The winners meet Sunday with a berth in the Final Four at stake.

No question, Virginia imposed its will in impressive fashion over Memphis (78-60), and the game really was not that close.

The Cavaliers and their noteworthy Pack-Line defense blistered Memphis, regarded as a sometimes streaky team, into 40.7 percent shooting, including 3-of-13 from three-point range. The Tigers, who saw a commendable season end at 23-10, also got clobbered on the glass by Virginia (40-28).

And the Cavaliers, who got a critical first half spark from senior Joe Harris, shredded the visitors with 55.6 percent field goal shooting, including five-for-11 marksmanship from three-point land.

No wonder an Elvis impersonator sitting two rows in was so quiet almost all night. Virginia throughly dominated the Tigers, playing as complete a game as they have all season.

Harris, who led a well-balanced parade of Virginia double-figure scoring, finished with 16 points. Several Tigers took futile cracks at the Virginia standout, but Harris basically drove Memphis nuts.

Harris is Virginia’s second leading scorer at 11.8 ppg, trailing Malcolm Brogdon. He is averaging 28.7 minutes per game, while shooting .441 overall from the field and .405 from three-point range.

Other Cavaliers certainly contributed against Memphis, as Mike Tobey delivered early offensive fire for the ACC champions. Following Harris’ lead in the first half, the Cavaliers attacked relentlessly and refused to let off the gas until the issue was clearly settled.

The Cavaliers owned a 27-point edge with 3:08 remaining in the second half.

Harris credited his teammates for Virginia’s decisive first half momentum that left Memphis staring at a 15-point deficit at halftime.

“Coach Bennett talked about how we’re going to have to play aggressive, whether it’s cutting hard, cutting to get a yourself or a teammate open, whatever it may be. We did a nice job of that across the board. It wasn’t just myself, everybody was doing a good job of hunting shots, screening hard and moving hard,” he said.

Virginia took Memphis way out of its comfort zone. The Cavaliers feature a suffocating defense and entered the game as the national leaders in scoring defense. As of March 22, the Cavs ranked in the top 10 nationally in nine defensive categories.

Virginia also has a team-first offense that tests the patience and raw nerves of the opposition.

“We were able to outlast teams, because they don’t want to have to guard for the entire possession. They don’t want to have to work that hard for an entire offensive possession,” Harris said.

Memphis wanted to press and rush out to transition in a high-flying pace.

Virginia, meanwhile, dictated the tempo and pace of this game.

Virginia’s Anthony Gill had another standout performance off the bench with 13 points, eight rebounds, one assist, two blocks and a steal in 19 extremely productive minutes.

“We knew we going to impose our will. They’re a transition team. They capitalize on other people’s mistakes. In order for us to win this game, we were going to have to get back in transition and that’s what we did,” Gill said.

Incidentally, some might see this Cavalier team as ‘plodding’.

The term came up Sunday.

Bennett took that one directly. He noted Virginia’s strength and conditioning coach (Mike Curtis) “has done a great job developing our guys.

“Athleticism is defined in different ways. We’re a little more strong or powerful. We maybe aren’t jet quick, but the way we play trying to be in position, the sturdiness of our guys in their stance when they grab rebounds and go to the rim, those things show at times.

“We’ve got some guys who can get off the floor. Akil’s (Mitchell) as good an athlete as anybody ... Guys like Anthony are deceptive. And you’ve got the strength of Malcolm (Brodgon) and Joe and certainly Justin (Anderson). And London (Perrantes) is just savvy.

“So whether we’re elite athletic, I wouldn’t say that, but I think they’re athletic enough. When you put the soundness with it and kind of the strength, that makes them solid,” said Bennett.

Friday, the Cavaliers must contend with a physical, tough Spartan operation. In conversations with a couple of experts about this matchup, it was pointed out that Izzo can break down the opposition as well as anyone in film study. It was also pointed out that in a normal set of circumstances, Virginia might not have even seen the Spartans until the Final Four. But the Spartans suffered some injuries, lost some tough contests, and slipped to a four seed when the brackets were announced.

This Izzo team is healthy again and a very formidable challenge for the Cavaliers, who are allowing opponents only 55.5 ppg.

“They’re a great program. Coach Izzo, he’s built that program up to be something everybody respects in college basketball. We’ve got to come out and play our defense like we do and make them work,” said Gill.

Gill, like the rest of the Cavaliers, won’t be intimidated by the Spartans.

“I kind of feel we’ve been underdogs all season. It’s nothing new to us.” Gill said. “We’ll just keep playing our game and keep working hard.”

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