They called it a neutral-site game, but the sea of orange Virginia shirts and the volume during the Cavaliers’ introduction at the Verizon Center on Friday night said otherwise.
The Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament semifinal was, for all intents and purposes, a home game for the fourth-ranked Cavaliers and a road game for No. 11 University of Miami. Of the 18,227 fans in the building, it seemed 18,000 were rooting for the “Hoos.”
The Cavaliers fed off the energy, rode the back of ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, led wire-to-wire, and ended the Hurricanes’ dreams of a conference title 73-68.
Miami rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit, battled until the end, but costly turnovers and Virginia’s timely big plays were too much to overcome. UM turned the ball over 16 times, and the Cavaliers capitalized with 19 points as a direct result.
“We had an uncharacteristic number of turnovers,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said. “That was really the difference in the game. We threw some passes that were about 100 miles an hour. It’s hard to catch those. The guy is open, it flies through his hands. We had an outlet pass that flew over a guy’s head. Those are not plays we’ve made all season long.”
Brogdon agreed they benefited from UM’s miscues.
“The way we turned Miami over, we ran the gaps, swiping at the ball, that’s the pack-line defense,” he said. “That really frustrates teams. They did get in the lane a good bit, but at the same time we turned them over by being in the gaps.”
Ja’Quan Newton, in his second game back from a three-game suspension, led the Canes with 19 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He was 9 of 11 from the foul line. Sheldon McClellan added 15 points and fouled out with 50 seconds to go.
Brogdon, whom Larrañaga called “sensational,” scored 24 for the Cavaliers. London Perrantes had 11 and Marial Shayok 10.
Virginia advances to the championship game at 9 p.m. Saturday against top-seeded North Carolina, which cruised past Notre Dame 78-47 in the earlier semifinal, the most lopsided semifinal in tournament history. The previous record was set in 1989, when the Tar Heels drubbed Maryland by 30.
North Carolina has played in the conference final four of the past five years, but lost all four, including last year to Notre Dame.
At this point in the season, there are few secrets between conference rivals. The Hurricanes had played the Cavaliers twice this season, beating them 64-61 at home on Feb. 22, and losing 66-58 on the road Jan. 12. They entered Friday’s game with identical 25-6 records.
This much was very clear from those first two meetings: Brogdon is hard to contain, and it’s very difficult to find a way to bust through the Cavaliers’ pack-line defense. Virginia allowed opponents only 59.4 points per game, which ranked second in the nation.
One area where Virginia has been a bit vulnerable is on perimeter defense. In the Hurricanes’ victory over the Cavaliers, they scored 64 points and were 8 of 18 from three-point range. Davon Reed, who has been on a hot streak in recent weeks, scored a career-high 21 and made five three-pointers.
Friday night, Larrañaga decided to deploy distance shooter Ivan Cruz Uceda, who didn’t play the previous night in the quarterfinal against Virginia Tech. The coach explained that Cruz Uceda lacked the speed to defend the Hokies’ guard-heavy rotations, but he said the Spaniard would prove valuable against the Cavaliers.
Virginia opened the game strong, and took a 15-4 lead, much to the delight of the crowd. Then, Cruz Uceda hit back-to-back threes to close the gap to five, and Newton turned a steal into a layup to get the Canes to within three, 15-12.
The Cavaliers pulled ahead by 10 on a three-pointer by Darius Thompson, and pushed it to 11 with two minutes to go in the first half on an off-balance shot by Perrantes. Miami clawed back with six unanswered points — a McClellan driving layup, an Anthony Lawrence dunk and a Newton layup.
Newton scored 11 first-half points, Cruz Uceda had eight, and the Hurricanes trailed 36-31 at intermission.
“They got the big lead from the beginning, a 10-2 lead and we were playing catch-up the whole game,” UM forward Kamari Murphy said. “Two good teams. They were just better on this night. But we’ve got bigger things to worry about on Sunday, see where we’re going to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
McClellan had the night’s most challenging defensive assignment — to cover Brogdon, who had averaged 24 points in his two games against Miami this season. The last time they played, in Coral Gables, McClellan was on a gimpy ankle and Brogdon matched a career-high 28 points — 17 in the second half.
Brogdon proved a handful again.
Meanwhile, Miami senior guard and emotional leader Angel Rodriguez picked up two early fouls, spent some time on the bench, and went scoreless in the first half. He was pumped as the second half got underway, and sparked the Canes to a 7-1 run, capped by a three-point shot that shrunk the Cavaliers’ lead to 42-39.
Rodriguez got a steal on the next possession, and the UM bench erupted. Although that steal didn’t amount to any points, it seemed to energize the team.
“I thought we had a chance,’’ Rodriguez said. “It was a one-two possession game. I thought we put ourselves in position to win the game, but you have to give them credit. They did what they had to do. We made a run and they didn’t panic. They’re very efficient. I’m happy we fought the whole game. They had an unbelievable crowd, and we kept fighting.”
The Hurricanes hung around, got to the free-throw line, Murphy had a pair of dunks, and they managed to stay within striking range despite a string of costly turnovers. UM trailed by four with 8:23 to go, and got to within three with three seconds to go, but that’s as close as they got.
“U-V-A! U-V-A!” chanted the Virginia faithful as the clock ticked down.
And so, the Hurricanes head back to Coral Gables to await the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday.