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Tough times are over as Cavaliers reign in ACC
Tough times are over as Cavaliers reign in ACC

GREENSBORO, N.C.

Tony Bennett's pitch to his first recruits as the University of Virginia men's basketball coach went something like this:

"Come to U.Va. We'll lose together."

Odd, maybe, but there was gold in Bennett's keep-it-real approach.

"He said, 'We might have to learn to lose together before we win together. It won't be easy; we'll go through some tough times,' " Joe Harris, a member of Bennett's first six-man class at U.Va., said Sunday.

"But he believed in us, and he believed we could have an opportunity to change this thing around."

Harris recalled his story late Sunday afternoon in Greensboro Coliseum, where the Cavaliers proved - with exclamation - that Virginia's thing was truly changed around.

In a gripping championship game at the ACC tournament - Virginia's first appearance in the final since 1994 - the top-seeded Cavaliers outlasted Duke 72-63 to capture the school's second ACC title. The only other one came in 1976.

Harris scored 15 points, 13 of them in the second half, and he was named most valuable player of the tournament.

Akil Mitchell, the only other survivor of Bennett's first class - the other four transferred - also played a starring role by grabbing 15 rebounds and, with aggressive defense, making the day difficult for Duke's star freshman, Jabari Parker.

As it has been all season, collective effort was the hallmark of a day on which U.Va. locked down the tournament crown to go with the regular-season championship it won by going 16-2 in the league.

Not so suddenly, there's a lot of winning to discuss around Virginia (28-6) as the Cavaliers enter this week's NCAA tournament among the elite in the bracket. Sunday night, U.Va. was seeded No. 1 in the East Region by the NCAA selection committee and will open play Friday against Coastal Carolina with a start time of approximately 9:25 p.m. in Raleigh, N.C. The game will be televised on TBS.

"His whole pitch was the 'Rocky' story," said Mitchell, a senior forward. "He wanted guys who wanted to be about something special, wanted to rebuild the program, guys that had a chip on their shoulder.

"For us, that just meant there's gonna be some bumps and bruises we'd have to fight through to hopefully get to this point here."

A former college star and NBA player, Bennett is only 44 but knew better than most the travails that could be ahead. He's the son of a coach, Dick Bennett, from whom he took over Washington State's 11-17 program in 2006.

But over the next three seasons, the Cougars won 69 games and advanced to two NCAA tournaments - and Tony Bennett was named national coach of the year in 2008.

However, when he was considering the move to U.Va. after the next season, he was surprised to learn the up-and-down nature - mostly down - of the Cavaliers' fortunes after the Ralph Sampson-Terry Holland glory years of the early '80s.

U.Va. went to the Final Four twice, losing in the semifinals in 1981 and 1984. But between then and Sunday, the Cavaliers had played for the ACC tournament championship just twice, losing both.

It reflected well U.Va.'s general malaise; the Cavaliers had posted three winning records in ACC play in the 14 seasons before Bennett took over.

"There was such a rich history, but there wasn't as much consistent success as I thought," Bennett said Sunday. "So we said that's the challenge; maybe bring back some stability and success and build on the foundation.

"That's what we talked about with that first recruiting class. We were selling a vision: Come on, we're gonna try and build this thing, because when you can be part of a turnaround, it's a real sweet feeling."

Preaching the deliberate pace, selfless offense and relentless man-to-man defensive effort he learned from his father, Bennett has done it gradually but without slippage.

His first team, with inherited players, took those lumps, going 5-11 in the ACC - although that was a one-win improvement from the previous year. Harris and Mitchell's first team went 7-9 in league play.

But then they were 9-7. Then 11-7 last year, with 23 overall victories. And this season, a school-best conference record. The Cavaliers also have increased their overall victory total each year, from 15 to 28-and-counting; they're one of three teams nationally to increase their win total over the past five seasons.

"I admire them," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I think they're a hell of a basketball team."

Bennett, too, appreciates the victories, but he often talks more proudly of the "quality basketball" produced by a unit that doesn't feature the nation's top recruits, but perhaps some of the most bonded.

"The right guys want to play this way," Bennett said this week, "and it's fun to win."

Sunday, they made sure "winning" and "U.Va. basketball" continue to be linked.

"Those 40 minutes that those guys laid on the floor, that's what I enjoyed more than anything," Bennett said. "They're as good as it gets. Here's what's unique about these guys: how they've sustained it from start to finish. That's different.

"I take my hat off, knowing there's still stuff in front of us. The big tournament is coming."

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