October 22, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

The Top 10 UVa Basketball Games I Have Attended

Last week, I revisited my 2009 column of the top 10 Virginia basketball games I had attended. As I did with my football list, I am updating the hoops list. The 2009 list covered games from the 2000-01 through 2008-09 seasons. Obviously, starting with the 2009-10 season, Tony Bennett arrived in Charlottesville, and the perspective of all Virginia basketball fans has forever been altered by an unprecedented level of success, culminating in the 2019 national championship.

For my football update, it wasn’t a huge struggle to compare great games from the Mike London and Bronco Mendenhall eras to those from the Al Groh and late George Welsh eras. The program had its peaks and valleys under each coach. I can identify great games that I attended when the program was led by each man, and a handful of games for each I witnessed that were awful. While we all certainly hope Mendenhall is building a program that remains successful for years to come, most of us had seen Virginia do these things before he arrived: beat Florida State, beat Virginia Tech, win a game against a top-five team, and win nine games.

But no one had seen the basketball program win a national championship before Bennett. Before Bennett, when fans spoke of the golden era of UVa hoops, they were referring to the 1980s, when Ralph Sampson won the national player of the year award three times, and the team went to two Final Fours, once with Sampson and once without him. Now, when fans talk about the golden era, they mean right now.

So there are two distinct eras of Virginia basketball. My first top 10 hoops list happened to fall right at the beginning of the era that has seen the program reach new heights. Thus, it was quite tough to figure out how to update this list with Bennett games while still attempting to respect the significant wins of the other era that I experienced. I could have easily created a top 10 with only Bennett games, heck, probably even a top 15 or 20, and I only go to an average of three to four games per year since graduating in 2010. But I didn’t want to do that. There will be time for a project like that later (hopefully much later), once Bennett writes even more of his story. For this list, I wanted to make sure some of those great games from the pre-Bennett period remained. After all, that is when I fell in love with the Wahoos, even though they often left me pulling my hair out and broken-hearted.

What you won’t see on this list are any games from the championship run. I wasn’t that lucky, though I’ll always have distinct and treasured experiences of where I watched each of those six games (in five different living rooms/venues). What this list does contain are some fantastic games at John Paul Jones Arena that could get overlooked now that the ‘Hoos have won a title. So relive those perhaps underrated matchups with me.

Any new entrants are marked with an asterisk, and I am leading off with an “others receiving votes” category, which, admittedly, is a bit lengthy.

Others receiving votes (chronological order): 2001 vs. N.C. State, *2001 vs. Missouri, *2007 vs. Maryland, 2009 vs. Clemson, *2010 vs. Georgia Tech, *2012 vs. Maryland, *2013 vs. North Carolina, *2014 vs. Harvard, *2018 vs. Louisville, *2020 vs. Virginia Tech, *2020 vs. Louisville.

10. March 9, 2008 – Virginia 91, Maryland 76: Sean Singletary’s actual swan song, a College Basketball Invitational game against Old Dominion, was on the 2009 list, but I in no way could fit a CBI game on this updated version, and I’m sure this is the kind of game Singletary would want to be remembered for anyway, rather than that one. And he gets more love later down this list. This was No. 3 in 2009, but I slid it down in the face of some tough competition. The Cavaliers finished just one game above .500 in 2007-08, whereas the worst record of any team in the Nos. 1-9 slots was 23-12. Still, this was a special day, as Singletary had his jersey retired, scored 27 points to cross the 2,000-point milestone, and the Wahoos beat one of their biggest rivals, essentially knocking the Terrapins out of the NCAA tournament. It was a nice salve for a year that otherwise didn’t meet up with expectations.

*9. Jan. 5, 2019 –  No. 4 Virginia 65, No. 9 Florida State 52: This game was a complete evisceration of an opponent that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard indicated, and I think the embarrassment weighed on the Seminoles. They have become a rival of sorts during the past several seasons for UVa, because they have been very good, a thorn in the Cavaliers’ sides at times, and they play physically and with an edge. So the buildup to this top-10 matchup to kick off the ACC schedule was real. Virginia came in 13-0, and FSU entered 12-1. After a little bit of a slow start, the ‘Hoos dominated. The score was 42-23 at halftime. Kyle Guy could not miss from beyond the mark, making five straight 3s and finishing 5 of 6 on his way to 21 points. Braxton Key had perhaps his best game as a ‘Hoo, scoring 20 points. For Virginia to just rip the heart out of an opponent and stomp on it right from the beginning in a top-10 matchup was really cool to see. You know things are going well when Jack Salt finds Mamadi Diakite with a no-look pass for a jam (go to 3:40 of the highlights below if you don’t believe me). Something happened at the end of the game that makes it notable, too. An otherwise boring final few minutes turned interesting when the Seminoles played more physically and intensely than would normally be expected in a 20- to 30-point blowout. Bennett had put in all of his backups, but FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, perhaps teaching his guys a lesson, continued to pressure the ‘Hoos and had his guys playing as if it was a two-point game in the final minute. FSU ended the game on a 16-0 run. It rubbed Wahoos fans the wrong way, and some booed the perceived unsportsmanlike effort. Perhaps that momentum carried over, though, because the ‘Noles knocked the Cavaliers out of the ACC tournament semifinals later, one of only three losses Virginia suffered on its way to winning the national title.
*8. Dec. 19, 2015 – No. 8 Virginia 86, No. 12 Villanova 75: This was just a really fun game, one that has become commonplace in the Bennett era: Two powerhouses just going at it toe-to-toe, with two of the best coaches the sport has to offer drawing up the Xs and Os. Villanova was excellent in 2015-16, losing just five games on its way to Jay Wright’s first national title (and the Wildcats won it all two years later as well). This was a very high-level victory for the Wahoos. This game was close throughout, with Virginia up 33-29 at the half. It stretched its lead to 13 before the Wildcats battled back to within three on a couple of occasions late. The game also was high-scoring, an oddity during the Bennett era, but that added to the excitement. London Perrantes scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half, and Anthony Gill led the way with 22 points and seven boards. Malcolm Brogdon scored 20 points and had seven rebounds, and Darius Thompson notched 11 points. Perrantes (three) and Thompson and Brogdon (two each) all made multiple 3s as Virginia went 8 of 12 from beyond the arc.
7. Jan. 3, 2007 – Virginia 108, Gonzaga 87: This game moves up a spot since 2009 because I want to recognize the all-time greatness of it. Before there was a Ty-land named after Ty Jerome, I remember it looking like Singletary was pulling up from the Wachovia logo during this game. Simply unconscious. The Wahoos made a school record 18 3s, with Singletary sinking 7 of 12. That record was tied when Virginia traveled to the Carrier Dome in 2019. Singletary scored an absurd 37 points in 25 minutes, which shows he clearly could’ve gone for his record that day (he had a career-high 41 in 36 minutes the following year at Miami). Mamadi Diane went 4 for 4 from beyond the arc and had 22 points, and J.R. Reynolds added 15. This was a fun beatdown of a team that had given the Cavaliers the business in their first two meetings: painfully, in the 2001 NCAA tournament by a point, and the year before this game at Gonzaga. So this was some sweet revenge against a program that by this point was a brand in college basketball, even if the ‘Zags weren’t quite up to their standard in 2006-07, when they still went 23-11 and lost in the first round of the Big Dance.
6. March 1, 2007 – Virginia 69, Virginia Tech 56: This contest sticks at No. 6. I haven’t been able to find video highlights of this game and refresh my memory, but what makes it significant is still a big deal: The win over the rival Hokies put the Cavaliers in first place in the ACC. Earlier in the season in Blacksburg, the Hokies won by 27, but the ‘Hoos mostly controlled the rematch, leading by eight points at the break and by no fewer than five the entire second half. Singletary scored 17 points, and Reynolds and Diane had 13 each. Winning a share of the ACC regular-season title that year was a really big deal, and it is still significant now, even if UVa is doing it more. I’d be tempted to move this game up higher, if only the ‘Hoos had beaten a mediocre Wake Forest team on the road after this to clinch the title outright, but alas …
*5. March 9, 2019 – No. 2 Virginia 73, Louisville 68: Any UVa fan knows that the Cavaliers have some classic wins against the Cardinals in the short time they have been in the ACC, and I have witnessed three of them. In 2018, Marco Anthony put up 10 surprising points, and Jerome made a pair of long 3s at the end to seal a 10-point victory. In 2020, Kihei Clark’s final dagger put away the pesky Cards. Both are worthy games, but I’m giving the edge to the 2019 meeting, which was a better pure game than the ’18 and ’20 matchups, plus Virginia won a share of the ACC regular-season title with the victory (officially a tie, but UVa defeated North Carolina that year). Louisville got down by nine early on, but battled back to within three at the break. In the second half, the Cards grabbed seven- and six-point leads on the back of nine made 3-pointers. But Virginia ended up shooting even better from beyond the arc, making 12 of 28, with Jerome, Guy, and Jay Huff each making three. Jerome led the way with 24 points, and Guy had 13. The Cavaliers finally pulled ahead for good when Jerome made a pair of free throws with 5:34 left to make it 63-62, and Huff got some separation with his final trey. The Wahoos really had to earn this victory, and it was satisfying to see fifth-year big man Jack Salt get to cut down the net after the game.
*4. Feb. 28, 2013 – Virginia 73, No. 3 Duke 68: This game has the same score as the one before it, but the Virginia-Louisville contest was a better overall contest. However, in 2013, Virginia beating Duke was huge, so I’m giving this game the slight edge. UVa had not beaten Duke since 2007 going into this matchup, a streak of eight games. Before the game, I was at Wild Wing Cafe (may it RIP). Charlottesville was buzzing the whole day. I was in one of the last rows of a jam-packed JPJ filled with fans ready to burst as the Wahoos searched for the season’s signature win, hoping it would boost them into the NCAA tournament. You could just sense some magic in the air on this night. Joe Harris had a game for the ages, scoring just a tick below 50 percent of UVa’s points, with 36, including a 12-for-20 showing from the field (2 for 5 from 3-point land). On any other night, Akil Mitchell’s stat line would’ve dropped jaws had it not been for Harris: 19 points and 12 boards. You may wonder who else scored in that game, because all I had remembered were their performances. Jontel Evans recorded six points. Paul Jesperson (remember him?) hit a triple very early and had five points. Teven Jones (and him?) had three points. Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte had two each. And that’s it. Something I had definitely forgotten is that Virginia led wire-to-wire, which was pretty remarkable given the season Duke had, reaching the Elite Eight. But on this night, the Cavaliers smelled blood in the water, and it felt like one of those games they just weren’t going to lose. Adding to the fun was Rasheed Sulaimon getting a technical foul — I remember him always being a brat — and then Mike Krzyzewski almost getting one for arguing with the refs. After the game, coach K infamously whined about UVa students rushing the floor and pinning in his players. But video proved that they did nothing wrong. It was a sweet, sweet victory. The aftermath is maybe the only thing holding back this game from finishing even higher. UVa went 1-3 over its next four games and missed the NCAA tournament.
3. Feb. 1, 2007 – Virginia 68, No. 8 Duke 66 (OT): The Blue Devils had a relative down year, finishing 22-11 and losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to VCU. But this game will always hold a special place in my heart for a few reasons. The Cavaliers were experiencing one of their best seasons in recent memory, and a win catapulted them into ACC regular-season title contention. This was my first year as a student, and I was thrilled that the team was good and that every game, I got to stand right behind the teams’ benches. I had never had such a good vantage point for the games I went to at University Hall. For this one, rather than go behind UVa’s bench, as I normally did, I decided to camp out behind Duke’s bench. Fans were even hungrier for a victory before this game than before the one above it: Duke had won nine straight over UVa. The game featured uncomfortable tension throughout, because unlike the one above, Virginia trailed for a lot of this one — by as many as 13 points in the first half, though it cut the margin to seven at the break. With 7:14 left, Virginia caught Duke at 49 on three Reynolds free throws. But then hope for the upset started to wane again, as the Devils opened the edge back up to eight with 3:40 left. Another thing I forgot about was Reynolds cramping up at the end of regulation. Despite pacing the team with 25 points, apparently he was not in for the tying play, when Singletary took matters into his own hands and hit a long 2-pointer. He finished with 17 points, and Diane had 14. In overtime, you know what happened: “The Shot” followed by “The Stare.” It seems like no matter what the Virginia basketball program accomplishes in the future, this one will be talked about forever.
2. Nov. 12, 2006 – Virginia 93, No. 10 Arizona 90: To this day, I think this game gets overlooked and overshadowed because of the game above it. Could it be slotted behind that Duke game from the same season? Of course. But this one deserves a top spot as well. It was my first game as a student, and the first men’s game at JPJ. The pregame featured the red-carpet treatment, with Michael Buffer getting the crowd fired up and Cav Man delivering the game ball to THE John Paul Jones (no, not that one ). The opponent was arguably as good as Duke (the Wildcats went 20-11 and lost in the first round of the Big Dance), the coach — Lute Olson — nearly as legendary as coach K. It featured a bigger comeback than the Duke game (19 points). Not that it matters as much now in the Bennett era, but it was higher-scoring than the Duke game, and that did matter then. There were two 25-point performances, from Diane and Singletary, plus a double-double from Jason Cain (13 points and 12 rebounds). Also, Virginia had to play the game with Reynolds not at 100 percent, because he got poked in the eye a few days earlier. Instead, he came off the bench to play 21 minutes, scoring 10 points. The game featured what I believe to be Singletary’s only in-game dunk of his career. For those reasons, I’m remaining stubborn and keeping this win above the Duke one.
*1. March 1, 2014 – No. 12 Virginia 75, No. 4 Syracuse 56: This barn burner overtakes the Arizona and Duke games for the No. 1 spot. The atmospheres for some big games at JPJ after this one may have been close to or equaled the atmosphere for this matchup. But it is difficult for me think of a game before this one, especially at JPJ, that was as hyped because of the game itself and what was at stake. The Arizona game was JPJ’s debut, and that came with a lot of pomp and circumstance, but the ACC title wasn’t at stake, and the team was coming off of a mediocre season as it opened the 2006-07 campaign. The pair of Duke games on this list were really fun, and the anticipation level for each was high, but the ACC title wasn’t at stake. I can’t speak to a lot of the big games at U-Hall. I watched some on TV, but I’m sure, at least in its later years, U-Hall hosted fewer huge games since the team was generally average. This was the first time I was going to a Virginia basketball game with visions of the team going far in the Big Dance dancing in my head. To be on the verge of an outright ACC regular-season championship — the program’s first since 1981 — when just five years earlier, as a third-year at the school, I saw the Wahoos win 10 measly games? I could hardly wrap my brain around it. But the fans were ready that day to witness history, and the team was ready to embrace it. I didn’t feel overly nervous, like I was for some games. It felt more like an exciting anticipation about what was possible if the team played well. We knew what it was capable of. The players didn’t play like they were nervous or scared. The ‘Hoos played like they were ready to take the crown.
And the matchup, of course, lived up to the billing. UVa got out to a small lead, then fell behind by a few points before drawing even again. A large chunk of the second half was super tight, with neither team taking a lead of more than three points until the 10-minute mark, when a Brogdon jumper put UVa up four. From there, the rout was on. To see the flood of Wahoos supporters pour onto the court to celebrate with THEIR guys, and see the team come back out of the locker room to cut down the net was a surreal moment — something the school and its fans had longed for and dreamed of for a long time. The frustration borne from years of disappointment was over. If you watch the highlights closely, at the end, you can see a tear coming down Bennett’s face before he goes through the handshake line. He and his staff and players worked so hard to lift Virginia out of the ACC’s depths, and I’m sure he felt like, partially, the mission was accomplished, even though he said after the game, “We still have work to do.” The cool thing is we know now the best was yet to come.
And that’s my revised top 10. Let’s hope the next decade brings even more need for updates! Feel free to let me know the best UVa hoops games you’ve been to (or any other sporting events) in the comment section below or at amp9f@virginia.edu.
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