Entering Saturday’s ACC showdown between Syracuse and Virginia, no one really knew what to expect.
True, Virginia had won 12 straight and Syracuse had dropped two of three, but come on. This is the Orange. They’re one of the top programs in America, and they started the season 25-0. Plus, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett only had a few days to prepare for Syracuse’s 2-3 zone.
On the flipside, Virginia was playing at home, and it was Senior Day.
“You never know how you’re going to handle it,” Bennett said on The Doug Gottlieb Show, referencing the number of variables his team faced. “But we just (thought), let’s stay true to who we are. Let’s take care of the ball, let’s be patient, let’s guard like crazy.”
Virginia did that and more on Saturday, routing the Orange 75-56. It was Virginia’s first ACC regular-season title since the days of Ralph Sampson.
“With a minute-and-a-half left, I just remember putting my head down and was really emotional,” Bennett said. “My eyes got real watery. I just was overwhelmed with thankfulness. After that Tennessee game where we got beat by 35 (Virginia lost 87-52 on Dec. 30) – and then to be in that spot, I was so thankful for my staff. We’ve been together now five years. And just these players.”
Those players include seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, who endured tough losses throughout their career but stayed the course.
“That was a special moment that I’ll cherish forever,” Bennett said of the win. “And again, it’s but a moment. Can we stay this way in how we play? We’ve come to a certain level of play and we’ve played a certain way. Can we continue on and not let all this stuff soften us because everyone’s telling them how good they are?”
Finding motivation shouldn’t be too hard, especially since some are questioning the validity of Virginia’s league title. After all, the Cavaliers feasted on ACC bottom-feeders and faced Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina and Pittsburgh only once.
“I loved it when I was at Washington State and there were 10 teams and we played each team twice; that was pure,” Bennett said. “With expansion and realignment, it’s impossible. It’s just the way it is. You can look at the weight of your conference schedule, it’s just sometimes luck of the draw – but you still got to win. I acknowledge that. I think there’s truth in both. It’s still a significant thing. You play 18 games. We’ve played 17. You got to show up and win, but it’s not pure – and you can’t say it (is) because we haven’t played each team twice. If that was the case, we’d have a huge conference schedule. There’s reality in that, but you still got to show up and play.
“They’re still going to hang the banner, and I’m very thankful,” Bennett continued. “But I absolutely acknowledge that a lot of it has to do with who you play, when you play them and all that stuff.”