“That’s what we do best is force our tempo,” U.Va.’s Akil Mitchell said. “That’s why we’ve been so successful all year, because we impose our will. We play our type of game. Michigan State is successful in that style of game, too. They’re very well-coached, obviously – a couple missed calls, a couple lay-ups and shots around the rim and stuff like that and a couple defensive breakdowns and the game goes the other way.”
Michigan State didn’t stay dormant on the offensive end.
Trailing 40-36 with 11:43 remaining, Michigan State rallied with a 13-2 run to go up 49-42. U.Va. went nearly six minutes without a field goal, missing six consecutive shot attempts before a Harris layup with 5:49 left cut Michigan State’s advantage to 49-44.
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“They are a great team, and defensively, I think they are the best defensive team we’ve played all year, but I think we did a great job of answering the bell because we did a good job checking them, too,” Michigan State’s Travis Trice said. “Coming in, we felt like we were one of the best defensive teams in the country, too.”
Through the first 20 minutes, Michigan State appeared to have found the answers to threaten Virginia’s NCAA tournament run, but U.Va. came storming back. Just as U.Va. did on the rare occasions it got in serious trouble this season, the Cavaliers calmly clawed their way back after falling behind early.
Michigan State took advantage of U.Va.’s determination to limit opportunities in the paint by knocking down 3-pointers early in the game. Michigan State hit a trio of 3-pointers in the first five minutes and four seconds, helping the Spartans race out to a 17-9 lead with 12:29 remaining in the first half.
Michigan State’s lead grew to 23-13 with 9:01 left in the half after a pair of Dawson free throws, but U.Va. came back.
U.Va.’s largest deficit it overcame to get a win this season was 11 points Feb. 18 at Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers trailed the Hokies 40-29 with 14:19 left before bouncing back to win 57-53.
Like Tech’s late lead in Blacksburg, Michigan State’s comfortable early cushion didn’t stand up.
“Virginia is a very, very, very tough team,” Dawson said. “Those guys just never gave up. Coming into this game, coach – he told us that we better be ready for a dogfight. That’s what it was.”
U.Va. recovered with a 12-0 run, highlighted by an Evan Nolte follow of a London Perrantes missed jumper to tie the game 23-23 with 3:54 remaining. Anthony Gill drove for a layup attempt that was converted via a goaltending call against Michigan State, giving U.Va. its first lead 25-23 with 3:30 left in the half.
Gill, who entered the game having scored in double figures off the bench in each of U.Va.’s last six games, was limited to just six minutes of playing time in the second half after rolling his ankle. He scored three points.
In a game of runs, it seemed only fitting for Michigan State to finish the first half with an 8-2 run of its own to claim its 31-27 edge. Michigan State scored 14 of its 30 points in the paint – an uncharacteristically high number of points in the lane against U.Va. – in the first half.
Despite its valiant effort to bounce back in the second half and advance to a regional final for the first time since 1995, U.Va. fell short on the scoreboard for just the second time in its last 20 games. Nothing could immediately soothe the sting of coming so close.
“It was a pretty sad scene coming in (to the locker room),” said Harris, who shot 6 of 14 from the floor, including 2 of 7 from 3-point range. “I think it just kind of hit a lot of guys all at once that this is the last time that Akil and (Thomas Rogers) and I are going to be playing with Virginia and being a part of this program and a part of this team. That’s tough, because we really haven’t thought about that at all. It’s more than just basketball stuff…We’re a very close-knit team.”
Wood can be reached at 757-247-4642