When Nigel Johnson walked through the Virginia locker room late Saturday night in Brooklyn, friends were dialing his phone trying to celebrate the moment. UVA, after all, had just completed the ACC sweep by topping North Carolina, 71-63, in the ACC Tournament title game.
Who could blame them? Hoo fans everywhere were excited about the double dip after Virginia completed a 20-1 run through the ACC regular season and tournament. Johnson tried to soak it all in in the charged excitement afterward.
“Man, crazy. This is my first one,” Johnson said Saturday. “Just to be able, like Coach Bennett said when he came in here, to go back-to-back and not only win the regular season ACC Championship but also the tournament, it’s hard to do and we did it. Just ready for the next one. We’ve got one more championship to get.”
Johnson came through with a big performance to help UVA hoist the tourney trophy. After Ty Jerome picked up an early foul, Johnson checked into the game and quickly posted eight points. He knocked down two free throws and two 3-pointers by the 8:52 mark of the first half. His last shot broke a 15-15 stalemate and UNC never got even on the scoreboard again.
For a player that had made just 13 triples all season long and had last made one back on Feb. 24, those two early 3-pointers loomed large for the team. Plus, he had played just six minutes in the tournament opener against Louisville and 11 against Clemson in the semifinals. He didn’t score in either game.
Virginia made six 3-pointers in total during the first half and that seemed to loosen things up for the offense as the game moved along. The Hoos hit just 37% of their shots before intermission, but shot 47.8% after the break. In addition to Johnson’s two 3’s, Devon Hall finished with three and Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome each had two.
“I wouldn’t say we had to [hit those 3-pointers], but I would say they definitely helped,” Johnson said. “There definitely were a lot of big shots out there. I hit a couple. Kyle, of course, hit a couple. Devon. Ty. We did our job and tried to loosen it up a little bit in the post to make it easier for our big guys and it worked.”
The redshirt senior was happy to contribute in the final.
“Championship Game, it’s all or nothing,” Johnson said. “It was just exciting to get out there and try to find a way to help my team and bring in some energy and a boost off the bench. It felt great.”
The victory pushed UVA to a 31-2 record entering the NCAA Tournament. Johnson is making his return to the Big Dance after playing with Kansas State as a freshman in the 2014 tourney. He logged 19 minutes in that game against Kentucky and did not score, but registered three rebounds and two steals.
Virginia is heavily favored to get a win in the first round of this year’s NCAA Tournament, of course, as the No. 1 overall seed in the brackets. The Hoos face UMBC on Friday in Charlotte.
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More On Maye
To pull out the ACC Tournament Championship, UVA needed to figure out how to slow down Carolina’s Luke Maye.
After holding Maye to six points on 2-of-10 shooting in the regular season win at the John Paul Jones Arena on Jan. 6, the UNC forward came out clicking in the tourney rematch. He went 5-of-7 shooting, including making all three of his 3-point attempts, to pour in 15 points in the first half. The Tar Heels used him almost like a guard at times in the half, having him run off screens or even double screens to try to get him the ball facing the basket at the 3-point line.
On one possession, he even used a shot fake to hit a one-dribble jumper from the top of the key.
“He’s a great player. He’s a tough matchup,” Cavalier center Jack Salt said Saturday. “He can shoot the three and put it on the deck as well. He hit some tough shots. He’s a tough matchup, but that’s what we do. We try our best to contain players. I don’t know how he did in the second half, but I thought in the first half he came out really hard and played really well.”
“You’ve got to adjust to things like that,” UVA senior Isaiah Wilkins said Saturday. “I think we did a good job in the second half. Obviously, he missed some open shots but that guy is a good player. Just trying to stay in front of him and bother him.”
In the second half, Maye slowed considerably and the Hoos stuck with him better defensively. He finished 2-of-6 shooting, including making just one of four 3-point attempts, in the second half for five points. Overall, that left Maye with 20 points.
Virginia sophomore Mamadi Diakite on whether he feels pressure when playing: “No I don’t. I just play. I guess I used to do that in soccer, but since I came here and I started playing basketball and I knew I was really behind and I had to take step by step to get to a point where I’m satisfied. I know I’m not there yet. It doesn’t make me up and down [emotionally], I just focus on how I can improve myself.”
After running up a 20-1 record against ACC opponents this season, reporters asked the Hoos if, one, they could appreciate how impressive that accomplishment had been and, two, how they would handle moving past it for the NCAA Tournament. UVA senior captain Isaiah Wilkins basically pointed out that the one game and one possession at a time mantra that the team relies on would be the way.
“Once we find out who we play, we lock back in,” Wilkins said Saturday. “I think we’re able to do that. I think we have the leadership and the maturity and obviously the coaches are going to preach that to us.”
Sophomore Ty Jerome said that the team hadn’t changed its attitude from the fall when preseason polls and conference predictions had Virginia on the outside looking in.
“We still have that same chip on our shoulder that we had from day one,” Jerome said Saturday. “Coach Bennett said the other day before our first game here [at the ACC Tournament], we might be favored in a lot of these games coming up now but we have to keep the underdog mentality.”
That’s a message that Bennett borrowed from his father Dick Bennett, who coached Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000. During the season, UVA climbed from unranked to No. 1 in the nation. With that rise, came added attention, higher expectations, and the favored label in games. The question became could the Hoos maintain the edge and the intensity that teams with nothing to lose conjure up for games against ranked or favored teams.
“My dad called me before one of the games and said ‘you’ve got to learn, whether it’s right or not, maybe you’re favored in some of these games and you’ve got to learn to underdog the underdog, you’ve got to out-underdog the underdog,’” Bennett said Monday with the media. “That’s the mindset, the grit, and the fight, of course, you’re going to need. That’s why I thought it was a catchy way to say it. Can you out-underdog an underdog? That can’t ever change here, that kind of mentality.”
Bennett has appreciated this team’s unity and resolve all season long. He said he thinks those intangibles will still be important during the NCAA Tournament. (Editor’s Note: the quotes in this article came prior to Monday’s news that De’Andre Hunter will miss the NCAA Tournament with a broken left wrist.)
“I think you stay really devoted and clear on how you have to play,” Bennett said Monday with the media. ”Your identity as a team, things don’t change. You’re going to need an incredible amount of heart, good fortune, and all those things. You’ve got to be sound and tough defensively and you can get into the basketball stuff. Their chemistry, their unselfishness, their ability to play so hard.”