Virginia, so ruthlessly efficient in its regular-season finale against Louisville, didn’t look quite so sharp in the first half of its ACC tournament opener Thursday.
The second-seeded Cavaliers quickly rectified matters, dominating the first 10 minutes after the break to earn a 72-52 victory in the quarterfinals at Verizon Center.
Malcolm Brogdon scored 26 points for Virginia (25-6), which will face the winner of Thursday’s late quarterfinal between third-seeded Miami and sixth-seeded Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers, who are making a third consecutive semifinal appearance for the first time since 1989-91, split the season series with both teams.
“We always talk about imposing wills and we just said ‘Let’s get a little tougher defensively and stay with it offensively,’ and I thought the guys did a great job,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We got lifts from everybody.”
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Graduate student Adam Smith scored 16 points for the 10th-seeded Yellow Jackets (19-14), who couldn’t deliver a second victory over Virginia this season.
Any chance at an upset unraveled early in the second half as the Cavaliers looked far more engaged at both ends after nursing a two-point lead at the break. After an exchange of baskets, Virginia scored on four consecutive possessions, with a Devon Hall reverse layup energizing a Cavalier-friendly crowd en route to a 40-30 lead.
Georgia Tech fouled Virginia forward Evan Nolte as he made a 3-pointer to set off another frenzy before Brogdon converted a traditional 3-point play. Nolte and Brogdon would again take turns making long jumpers as the Cavaliers went up 52-35.
“I think sometimes we have a habit of starting slow and sort of feeling our way into the game,” Brogdon said. “It hurts us a little bit, but I thought we were able to pick it up soon enough to really get going. I thought where the couple days off really helped us in terms our rest. Our bodies were fresh and we were able to make a run in that second half we might not be able to do if we were playing back to back.”
The second half was much more reflective of how Virginia closed the regular season. The Cavaliers won their final three games, knocking off eventual first-place finisher North Carolina and then stifling Louisville in a 68-46 triumph in their final game this season in Charlottesville.
The loss effectively ends Georgia Tech’s longshot hopes of earning a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. The Yellow Jackets had won six of their last seven and advanced to the ACC quarterfinals for the first time in coach Brian Gregory’s five-year tenure.
“We just weren’t able to respond offensively when they got it going,” Gregory said. “They’re so good defensively and they’re so consistent defensively that all the sudden they go on a stretch where they make some shots and now a four- or five-point game is now a 13-point game and that’s what happened tonight. We didn’t play well enough to beat a team of that caliber.”