Virginia is not invincible, even if it looks that way sometimes. There seems to be a moment in every game when the Cavaliers, by being more patient and more disciplined, squeeze the will and hope out of their opponent.
It happened to Louisville in the second half on Thursday, just when the Cardinals were making a run. It happened to Clemson twice on Friday, once in each half of its ACC semifinal game. The regularity with which Virginia does that is both the Cavaliers' not-so-secret weapon and the foundation of their program.
“It seems like every time we got a little momentum, the ball would drop out of our hands, they'd get it laid in, or they just would hit a tough shot at the end of the shot clock, those kinds of things,” Louisville coach David Padgett said, not the first coach to express those sentiments.
But there was enough in both of those games before each team was Virginia-ed to offer reason to believe that the nation's No. 1 team and the ACC's No. 1 seed would not waltz to Saturday's title game.
Louisville was within four midway through the second half before the Cavaliers turned up the defensive intensity and the Cardinals wilted, but Louisville was able to get the ball inside and get to the foul line. Clemson followed that same recipe Friday and actually led 20-13 early before Virginia tightened the screws, managing to recover to stay within single digits for most of the second half. If a few more 3s had dropped – Clemson was 5-for-25, 3-for-14 in the second half – the Tigers might be sticking around instead.
“We didn't do exactly what we probably wanted,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I would have liked to have had another day or two to really kind of work on it a little bit more.”
There's not much anyone can do about matching Virginia mentally; the Cavaliers not only believe they're tougher than the other guys, they have 30 wins to prove it. But both Louisville and Clemson tried to be as physical as possible inside, and that's the best way to counter. Neither team could get much going from the outside, and that's the other half of the equation.
Both Duke and North Carolina can get hot from 3-point range, and they'll need to if one of them is going to bring the championship back to North Carolina for a third straight year. Duke, with Marvin Bagley III inside, is probably better suited to banging around under the basket, which is a strange thing to say about Duke and North Carolina, but these are strange kinds of Duke and North Carolina teams.
It's not a strange Virginia team. If anything, this team is the epitome of the Tony Bennett process: unselfish, disciplined, schooled, balanced. It won't be easy to beat. It hasn't been easy to beat. But it is beatable. Louisville and Clemson got part of the way there. An ACC title will hinge on whether North Carolina or Duke can finish the job.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock