GREENSBORO — It’s been a trying senior year for Virginia guard Joe Harris. The only returning first-team All-ACC pick from a year ago and a runner-up choice as the preseason player of the year in the league, he saw his scoring average drop partly because of a nagging shooting slump and partly because the Cavaliers had more scoring options this season.
Then there was the Dec. 30 blowout loss at Tennessee, an 87-52 whipping that prolonged the doubts in basketball observers’ minds regarding the true quality of Virginia’s team. Harris barely played in Virginia’s next game, a 62-50 win at Florida State, when he suffered a concussion in the first two minutes of play.
Somehow he persevered, and on Sunday he led Virginia to only the second ACC tournament championship in school history and the first in 38 years. For good measure, he received the Everett Case Award as tournament MVP after scoring a team-high 47 tournament points, including 15 in the 72-63 championship win over Duke.
“Coach (Tony) Bennett always believed in me,” Harris said. “A lot of programs didn’t give me a look, even in the state of Washington. Belief in one another, that’s what turned this around.”
Virginia point guard London Perrantes said it was Harris’ 3-pointer with 1:59 left, which gave Virginia a 64-58 lead, that turned the tide. Perrantes said he threw a cross-court pass on the transition to Harris, who pulled up on the left wing and never hesitated.
“At first I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ Perrantes said. “But when it went in, I felt better. Big-time players step up in big situations. That's Joe. For him to finish up like this is great.”
Said ACC Network commentator Cory Alexander, who starred for the Cavaliers 20 years ago, “I'm proud to have shared the No. 12 with him.”
Harris shared another distinction with a former Cavalier star. Like Wally Walker did in 1976 when he led Virginia to its first tournament championship, Harris did not make the All-ACC first team but ended up being named the tournament MVP.
All-tournament team: Joining Joe Harris on the all-tournament team were his teammate Malcolm Brogdon, Duke’s Jabari Parker, T.J. Warren of N.C. State and Talib Zanna of Pittsburgh. Brogdon and Parker each scored 23 points in the championship game, with Brogdon getting a career high.
The second team had Anthony Gill and Akil Mitchell of Virginia, Rodney Hood and Amile Jefferson of Duke, and Lamar Patterson of Pitt. Gill came off the Cavaliers bench to score in double figures in each game, finishing with 38 points. Mitchell was recognized for his defense and rebounding. He pulled down a game-high 15 boards in the championship game and totaled 29 in three games. He also was the chief defender on Parker, making him work for his points on a 9-of-24 shooting day.
Where’s Dawkins?: On a day when Duke shot only 38 percent, points were hard to come by against Virginia’s persistent man-to-man “Pack Line” defense. That's what makes the lack of playing time for senior guard Andre Dawkins so eyebrow-raising.
Dawkins came off the bench to go 3-of-5 from 3-point range in just seven minutes of playing time against Virginia. And that was after he logged only seven minutes, all in the first half, in the quarterfinal against Clemson and didn’t even play in Saturday's semifinal victory over N.C. State.
“It doesn't need to be explained,” Dawkins said of his lack of playing time. “As a player, it’s not my job to ask for explanations. It was a tough game (against N.C. State). The guys that played, played well.
“My job is to go out there and play, not question the decision. I stand behind the coach’s decision 100 percent.”
At least one of his teammates would have liked to see Dawkins out there more against the Cavaliers. “He's one of the best shooters in the country,” Quinn Cook said. “He's a weapon. As a point guard, I try to find him at all times.”
Dawkins was hitting 43 percent of his 3-pointers (61 of 142) entering the tournament. He did not score against Clemson, missing his only shot, a 3-pointer.