Virginia is latest ACC upstart to smoke Tobacco Road powers

Mar. 16, 2014 @ 06:13 PM

For a third straight year, the ACC Tournament final turned into a celebration for an upstart program that hadn’t won the event since long before the current players were born.

And once again, it came at the expense of the Tobacco Road rivals that had long dominated the conference.

Virginia won its first ACC championship since 1976 with a 72-63 win over No. 7 Duke Sunday at the Greensboro Coliseum. That follows two seasons in which programs won their first-ever ACC title by beating North Carolina — Miami here last year and Florida State in Atlanta in 2012.

From 1997-2011, either Duke or UNC won every ACC title except for 2004, when sixth-seeded Maryland capped its surprise run by beating the Blue Devils in overtime in the final. But now, for a third straight year, one of the Tobacco Road powers was shuffling off the court as the confetti streamed down on a new champion.

The axis of power isn’t just shifting on the court. The addition of former Big East powers Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame (with Louisville coming in 2014-15) has moved the spotlight away from the Triangle a bit. And while the ACC hasn’t made an official announcement yet, the tournament itself appears to be moving north of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time, with Brooklyn set to host in 2017 and 2018.

Unlike Florida State and Miami, Virginia joined the ACC during its first season in 1953-54. But the Cavaliers had only won one of the previous 60 conference tournaments and hadn’t been to the final since 1994.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said that earlier in the week, 1976 ACC Tournament MVP Wally Walker had texted him: “We want some company.”

The Cavaliers’ fan base was clearly eager for the opportunity to claim a title, coming in droves and taking up more of the Greensboro Coliseum each day.

“That was unbelievable, to have the support that we had,” senior Joe Harris said. “We were kind of joking around when we came in, ‘Where are the Duke fans?’ All we could see was orange when we drove over here. It’s special to share it with the fans. They deserve it. The city of Charlottesville deserves an ACC Tournament title. They’ve been extremely loyal and very supportive ever since I’ve gotten to the school here.”

Virginia and N.C. Central are two of three teams that have improved their win total in each of the past five seasons. Virginia has done it with a suffocating defense and methodical offense, which allowed the Cavaliers to lead the NCAA in scoring defense this season (55.1 points) and finish two games ahead of runner-up Syracuse in the league standings.

The Blue Devils missed 15 of their first 18 shots Sunday, scored a season-low 25 first-half points and finished at 38.1 percent from the field.

“To me, the true joy is in how they played when the ball was tipped between the lines, how hard they played,” said Bennett, who was named the ACC coach of the year. “How well they played. Not perfect. How they defended, how they moved the ball and tried to outlast through the game.”

There has only been two other three-year periods when either Duke or UNC didn’t win an ACC title. N.C. State won the first three championships from 1954-56, and N.C. State, Maryland and Georgia Tech each won once from 1983-85. Those streaks were then broken by UNC’s 1957 NCAA championship team and Duke’s 1986 NCAA runner-ups.

The Blue Devils and Tar Heels are expected to contend next season when the tournament comes back to Greensboro. And just as likely, there will be a conference newcomer or a long-dormant program that’s eager to keep the hardware away from Tobacco Road.

NOTES — While Virginia was not an ACC charter member, it joined the fledgling seven-team conference in time to play a limited conference basketball season after joining in late 1953. The league was founded on June 14, 1953 and Virginia was admitted on Dec. 4, 1953.