Virginia Basketball: 10 Defining Moments of 2012 Season

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IMarch 23, 2012

Virginia Basketball: 10 Defining Moments of 2012 Season

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    Turns out that the 2011-12 season was one of the most rewarding and frustrating seasons in the history of the Virginia Cavaliers.

    Coach Tony Bennett knew the task in front of him, to get his team back to the NCAA tournament for just the third time since 2000.

    With the experience of three seniors and a preseason pick by the media to finish fourth in the ACC, the pressure was on for Virginia to take that next step.

    What transpired was one roller coaster season where the Cavaliers had thrilling victories, heart-breaking losses, inexplicable performances on both the good and bad side of the spectrum and plenty of attrition throughout the way.

    Nevertheless, for those that missed it or simply want to look back and reflect, here are the moments that defined the season—one that featured the most wins in nearly two decades and the most "what could have been" talk in recent memory.

10. Virginia Escapes Seattle

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    As a Virginia basketball fan I must admit, every time the Cavaliers are "supposed" to win, I am terrified.

    The Cavaliers had a big victory over Michigan but could quickly change the headlines with a bad loss.

    Enter a Seattle team with a 2-7 record, including a 70-49 loss to Stanford.

    The Redhawks represented the classic trap game for a program infamous for trap-game losses.

    Virginia's pack-line defense had stopped nearly everyone, but Seattle simply bullied its away around Cavalier defenders.

    Seattle led at half 38-36 against a team that had not given up more than 60 points all season up to that point. 

    Virginia looked like they found its groove in the second half by building a 14-point lead behind senior forward Mike Scott, but the game once again turned in the final minutes.

    Seattle actually came back to take the 68-67 lead with 3:30 to go and had a few chances in the final minutes where a potential foul call could have put the Redhawks on the line to potentially tie the game.

    Instead Virginia got the rebound and the victory, avoiding what would have been a disastrous loss and paving the way for the best start in school history since the Ralph Sampson years of the early 1980s.

    It was the one game of the year where offense bailed out the defense.

9. Florida State Collapse

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    Virginia wanted a big ACC victory this season.

    Sure, the Cavs had one-possession losses to Duke, North Carolina and Florida State, but their biggest victories had come against those second-tier teams of Miami and North Carolina State.

    When the Seminoles came to Charlottesville, not only were they ranked in the top 25, but a Virginia victory could give them an outside chance at the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament.

    The Cavaliers were down at the half but completely changed the momentum in the second half.

    Their gritty effort was defined by one key moment. On a fast break. the Seminoles threw the ball down to Bernard James, but the ball was deflected by a physical effort from swingman Joe Harris.

    The hustle play clearly rubbed James the wrong way because he kicked the sophomore on the floor, causing a flagrant two foul which took the experienced veteran off the court and put Virginia to the line to make it a double-digit game with just over four minutes to go.

    Yet, just like the Miami game in the ACC Tournament last season, the Cavaliers could not handle the prosperity.

    The Seminoles were able to create turnovers, make big shots and, just as they did all season, snatched a close victory from the jaws of defeat.

    Florida State's game-winning shot with just a few second left crushed the Virginia morale and took what could have been a surging Cavaliers team going into the tournament into a team backing into the tournament.

    Virginia still has not proven the ability to knock out teams when it has the chance. That "killer instinct" or finishing ability will be a requirement if the Cavaliers ever want to make their mark in March.

8. Malcolm Brogdon's Foot

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    When Tony Bennett signed six recruits in his first class, people took notice. So much so that his successive class failed to earn the hype it deserved.

    Case and point: Malcolm Brogdon.

    Mr. Basketball for the state of Georgia, Brogdon was not shy on the collegiate stage. He accepted the role of being an offensive force for this team and committed defensively to the point of satisfying coach Bennett.

    Brogdon had his struggles, but he showed so much promise that every Cavaliers fan had to be excited about his game.

    They had to be even more impressed with his heart.

    In the second half of the Virginia Tech game, Brogdon did not sit but stood next to the sidelines until the final minutes.

    With no explanation from the ESPN commentators, Brogdon was forced into the game to play point when both the starting and back-up point guards fouled out less than a minute apart from one another.

    Unknown to nearly everyone outside of the team, Brogdon had broken a bone in his foot the game before against Maryland.

    After trying to gut it out, Brogdon's pain became too severe until he was pressed into service in the final minute, on the road, in a game where the Hokies had made a late charge to potentially pop Virginia's NCAA tournament bubble.

    Brogdon came in and not only handled the ball well enough to not turn it over, but also stole the ball in the final seconds to secure a desperately needed Virginia victory.

    After one more game, the pain became too much and Brogdon was shut down. His injury required surgery, and the season was ended early for youngster.

    His loss cost Virginia one more player on the depth chart and probably stunted the tremendous progress already made by the freshman.

    Still, with 49 points in the final five games he played healthy, Brogdon showed that he can be a contributor on offense and a leader in the huddle.

7. Last Second Stand in Raleigh

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    Saturday night and a national audience tuned in to watch the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the Virginia Cavaliers.

    Little did they know at the time, but this contest would decide who was the four-seed and who was the five-seed in the ACC Tournament.

    The Cavaliers entered the game 1-1 since the loss of Assane Sene with an ankle injury. In both games Virginia had trouble putting opponents away and it cost them the Virginia Tech contest.

    The absence of Sene was felt more in this game than perhaps any other. Lacking his 7' frame, Virginia got absolutely hammered on the boards by the Wolfpack bigs.

    The Wolfpack doubled the amount of rebounds Virginia produced 40-20. In fact, Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie had three more rebounds for North Carolina State than the entire Cavaliers team.

    Virginia could not seem to finish defensive possessions, but their defense stood firm.

    So it made sense that the game would be decided on a Virginia defensive stand in the waning moments.

    Trailing 61-60, North Carolina State called a timeout with 7.8 seconds to go and drew up a play where Lorenzo Brown would drive the lane.

    Akil Mitchell, starting for the injured Sene, was able to keep Brown along the arc, and his contested shot fell short as time expired.

    Virginia survived and picked up its most impressive road victory of the season.

    Despite all the struggles for Virginia this season, their road mark was one thing to be proud of. The Cavaliers went 4-4 on the road in the ACC, six of them being decided by three points or less.

    That win was the biggest ACC victory of the season for the Cavaliers and helped keep them in the top 25 the following Monday.

6. Joe Harris Breaks Hand

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    Perhaps no one worked harder in the offseason than Joe Harris.

    The sophomore was given a card by head coach Tony Bennett on what to improve upon. The No. 1 item was being able to attack the lane and not solely relying on his three-pointer.

    It was good advice, and while Harris did not shoot from behind the arc as efficiently as last year, he became a better all-around player.

    His ability to make defenders lives more difficult opened up opportunities for others and clearly established himself as the No. 2 option in the offense given Sammy Zeglinski's offensive struggles in the ACC this season.

    That changed in Chapel Hill.

    The Cavaliers were scaring the No. 5-ranked Tar Heels, leading most of the first half and only trailing by three at the break.

    Virginia trailed 45-43 with 13:30 to go before the wheels finally fell off.

    One of the reasons was that Joe Harris broke a bone in his non-shooting hand during the course of the game.

    Harris, who had scored in double figures in seven of the previous eight games finished with just eight point of 2-of-9 shooting.

    Given Virginia's depth problems, Harris gutted it out, despite the pain and swelling.

    While he showed plenty of heart, he lacked handle.

    Harris simply could not handle the ball like he needed to in order to make defenders respect his ability to drive to the basket.

    His worse fear had come true; he was one-dimensional again.

    Harris went 5-of-16 in the next three games and looked the worse for wear.

    Yet, as time went on and the swelling subsided, Harris began to look more and more like the player we remembered.

    His 18-point performance in the ACC Tournament leaves hope that Harris will bounce back stronger than ever.

    Still, his offensive limitations due to injury truly kept the Cavaliers from reaching their full potential. 

5. Mike Scott Takes over Maryland Game

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    Here we go again.

    Every Virginia fan was feeling that deja vu feeling in the season finale for the Cavaliers at Maryland.

    Virginia had lost six games by three points or less in the season and blown double-digit leads in four straight games.

    Three of those big leads, by the way, were in the second half.

    So imagine the surprise that Virginia did it for a fifth time against Maryland in a game that meant the difference between the four-seed in the tournament and possibly falling to the sixth seed and out of the Big Dance.

    In fact, Maryland had a shot at the buzzer that just hit the front rim that would have given them the win.

    Now imagine the surprise of Virginia actually winning the game in overtime.

    How did it happen?

    Mike Scott.

    Scott, the senior superstar, did something we had all waited for: He got selfish.

    He implored his teammates to get him the ball, insisting he would win the game for them and that is precisely what he did.

    Scott scored a career-high 35 points and made successive buckets in overtime to build a gap that Maryland could not overcome.

    No one in the country relied on a player like Virginia did on Scott. Sometimes the only offensive option, the big man mastered the fade-away jumper and found ways to survive double and even triple teams.

    Only three times the entire season did Scott fail to hit double-figures. He hit at least 20 points in 11 games.

    Considering the slow pace of play for Virginia, that's extremely impressive. Yet no performance was quite like the Maryland one.

4. K.T. Harrell/James Johnson Transfer

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    Tony Bennett made a wave in his first recruiting class known as the "Six Shooters."

    Well, after their first season together, two of them bolted before their sophomore season for more playing time elsewhere.

    Turns out they were not the only ones.

    James Johnson, who red-shirted in 2010-11, was supposed to be a big-time player but quickly showed his inexperience on both the offensive and defensive end. After half a season, Johnson saw his role shrinking by the game and bolted.

    Johnson's loss was unexpected, but Harrell's loss was far more shocking.

    The sixth man for the Cavaliers went through a slump for most of the 2011 calendar year.

    While he continued to give it his all, you could see his confidence waning. His shot was not dropping and freshman Malcolm Brogdon was slowly passing him in the depth chart.

    Harrell decided to transfer in the middle of the season, right around Christmas time. That lump of coal festered for the Cavaliers all season long.

    Was Harrell the difference between a fourth place and a first place finish in the ACC? Probably not.

    On the other hand, when injuries crept up and Virginia was down to six fully healthy scholarship players, Harrell's talent, experience and depth was sorely needed.

    Harrell is a great young man and a talented player, but his decision will unfortunately and unfairly make him a villain to some Virginia fans for quite some time. 

3. Big Ten Beatdown

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    No one knew what to make of the Cavaliers early on in the 2011-12 season.

    We all knew that Virginia had the potential to be good, but they had yet to play anyone of significance.

    Heading into the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Cavaliers were 5-1 but had lost a 57-55 game to a TCU team that ultimately finished 18-15 in the Mountain West and followed that up with a victory in which they scored a grand total of 49 points.

    The Michigan Wolverines proved a real challenge and to have the game at home gave the Cavaliers a significant opportunity in front of them.

    In the second half, Virginia played perhaps the best basketball they did all season. Their pack-line defense made a top 25 team look foolish, to the point that it looked like they were on the verge of quitting.

    Trailing 39-34, Virginia went on a 19-2 run that featured everything Cavalier fans wanted to see.

    Forward Mike Scott was dominating in the paint. 

    Sammy Zeglinski was making three-pointers.

    Virginia was reeling in defensive rebounds and not allowing second-chance opportunities.

    Even Malcolm Brogdon was getting into the act scoring 13 of his career-high 16 points in the second half.

    At one point, Michigan went six-and-a-half minutes without a point.

    The Cavaliers proved that they were a top-25 caliber team, and that win did exactly that. It was the most impressive victory all season and Virginia's saving grace when the selection committee met for March Madness.

    This game showed just how dangerous Virginia could be when fully healthy. Little did we know just how difficult that would be.

2. Assane Sene's Injury

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    If you had asked Cavalier fans to rank the Virginia starters in importance, Assane Sene probably would have been listed last.

    Well, Virginia fans saw what a world without Sene looked like when he turned his ankle in late January against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

    Sene's injury impacted the Virginia rotation perhaps more than anything else this season. It forced true freshman Darion Atkins and sophomore Akil Mitchell into bigger roles in the post.

    It took away "the eraser", a 7' that could swat away shots the few times Virginia's defense broke down.

    It took away the experience of a four-year starter who had been slowly but surely progressing.

    The Cavalier defense simply was not the same without Sene's presence the rest of the season.

    Before his injury, Virginia was 14-2. After his injury, Virginia went 8-8.

    Before the injury, Virginia had given up 60 points or more in two games. After the injury, Virginia gave up that total eight times.

    Blame that on the level of competition if you will, but it seems clear that the Cavaliers just wore down at the end of the year with the increase in playing time.

    Sene was a valued defensive force and his injury did more to derail the momentum of the season than maybe anyone can truly define. 

1. Making the NCAA Tournament

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    Ultimately, the most important thing that happens for Virginia is having its name called on Selection Sunday.

    To say that it was the first invitation since 2007 is an understatement. Head coach Tony Bennett inherited a team in disarray.

    The 2009 team had finished with a paltry 10 wins, the fewest since the 1970s.

    Bennett took over a team that had lost hope and needed direction. He brought in the "pack-line" defense and quickly had results his first season before a 10-game losing streak crushed what had been a feel good story.

    The following season Virginia looked like it had turned things around after a slow start but lost Mike Scott in December to season-ending surgery. The Cavaliers went from 8-3 to lose seven of their next 10.

    However, at the end of the year, the Cavaliers rallied around each other and their underdog status to win four of their last five entering the ACC Tournament where the Miami Hurricanes crushed their spirit with one of the worst final minute collapses in ACC history.

    Virginia wanted a good season, the Cavs hoped for one, but people knew better than to guarantee one.

    Yet, even with more adversity than any human being could imagine, Virginia finished fourth in the ACC and won 22 games (the most since the mid-90s).

    Virginia basketball had an incredibly thrilling season. The losses were crushing and the nerves were often frayed.

    Time and time again though, this team responded when it had to. It showed a moxie that few teams could claim.

    Now they must work hard to reach the next step. They cannot blow double-digit lead as frequently as they did this season.

    They must learn a killer instinct.

    With Bennett in charge though, this program is heading towards great things.