Syracuse stuns Cavaliers in Elite Eight upset

Fans gather at the airport in the wee hours Monday to welcome the Cavs and Coach Tony Bennett back from a weekend in Chicago that had the highs of winning the Sweet 16 over Iowa State and the lows of losing to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. 
Photo Matt Riley Fans gather at the airport in the wee hours Monday to welcome the Cavs and Coach Tony Bennett back from a weekend in Chicago that had the highs of winning the Sweet 16 over Iowa State and the lows of losing to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. Photo Matt Riley

In an unlikely second-half comeback, the Syracuse Orange took down top-seed Virginia 68-62 in the Elite Eight Sunday, ending the Cavaliers’ postseason play. Of Bennett’s four tournament appearances with Virginia, this year’s Elite Eight was the deepest postseason run the team has made.

“We will have some tough nights because you’re so close you could taste it,” said Coach Tony Bennett in a post-game press conference, “but absolutely joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia basketball.”

For third-year student Max Ober, who attends every home game he can, the team’s exit was a mixed bag of emotions.

“We made it farther this year than the past two, but it’s disappointing to lose to a team that we know we can beat,” Ober says, referring to the Cavaliers’ 73-65 win over Syracuse in the regular season.

In their Elite Eight rematch, the Cavs built up a 14-point lead at halftime and appeared to have firm control over 10th-seeded opponent Syracuse. For the majority of the second half Virginia maintained the lead, but a three-pointer by Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson at the seven-minute mark began a 15-0 run that left the Hoos trailing 64-58 with three minutes to play.

With seniors Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon both scoring below their averages, making only 10 and 12 points, respectively, the Cavaliers struggled to keep up their offense in the second half. Committing a tournament-high 13 turnovers only fueled Syracuse’s fire, directly leading to 15 of Syracuse’s points.

“I was calm for a while until I realized our defense was not getting stops,” Ober recalls of the last 10 minutes, “and the offense was being pushed off their rhythm by the press. Everything started to lean in favor of Syracuse.”

Despite Virginia’s disappointing tournament exit, Bennett’s Cavaliers have given UVA arguably three of its best seasons, recording 89 wins to surpass 1981-1983’s 88 wins. In 2014, the Cavs finished first in the ACC for the first time since 1981 and also won the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976. They received a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament and reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995’s Elite Eight run.

The 2015 Cavaliers clinched the ACC regular-season title for the second year in a row and earned a 2-seed in the NCAA.

This year’s 2016 season brought a new slew of “firsts” for Bennett’s team, with Malcolm Brogdon being the first player to earn both ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, with the Cavaliers going undefeated at home for the first time since 1982 and, of course, with the Cavalier’s first appearance in the Elite Eight since 1995.

As the season ends, seniors Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte, and Caid Kirven will graduate with 112 career wins, matching the school record set by the senior class of 1983. Despite their undeniable legacy, Ober worries about what the future will look like for the Cavaliers.

“I thought this was the year for UVA,” Ober says. “They are losing key seniors, the go-to scorers. Luckily Coach Bennett has been building a program of depth, so there are players to step up, but they will have to take on new roles. Without Malcolm, I wonder who will be the go-to scorer.”