Well before the game, after draining jumper after jumper in warmups, Virginia guard Kyle Guy heaved up a high-arching hook shot in the lane near the free-throw line.
The ball banked in, Guy playfully lifting both arms in a victory pose, as if asking what could possibly go wrong?
Turns out, the top-seeded Cavaliers would trail N.C. State at halftime of the ACC tournament quarterfinal game. But the defending ACC champions, shedding some harsh memories of a year ago at the Spectrum Center, didn’t panic, didn’t flinch, strongly pulling away in the second half Thursday for a 76-56 victory.
Guy and the Cavs (29-2) won’t ever be able to wash away all the pain and suffering from their 2018 NCAA tournament opener, when 16th-seeded UMBC made NCAA history with a 20-point win over Virginia, a No. 1 seed, at the Spectrum Center. But this is a new postseason and it began Thursday for the Cavs.
Guy, crushed after the NCAA loss, had 29 points, hitting seven of nine 3-pointers, saying he tried to play with a “laser focus.” He’s the one most people were talking about after the game, once converting a 3-pointer into a four-point play in the second half as the Cavs surged ahead.
“Kyle Guy was special today,” NCSU coach Kevin Keatts said. “He made everybody look good. The shots that he made were back-breakers.”
But it was the Cavs’ big man, 6-10 senior Jack Salt, who got them started in the second half. Averaging 3.6 points a game and shooting 45.9 percent at the foul line, and scoreless in his last five games, Salt had a pair of three-point plays in the first five minutes of the second half off hustle plays and added another late in the game. He had 18 points, easily topping his career high of 12..
A follow shot by Salt with 14:52 remaining in regulation gave Virginia a 37-36 lead and the Cavs didn’t trail again. Guy starting hitting 3s after that, smiling as he ran back down the floor, and the Cavs were on their way to the semifinals, shooting 62.5 percent from the field in the second half.
The Wolfpack (22-11) recovered from an 18-point deficit on Wednesday in beating Clemson 59-58, when it trailed by 16 at the half. The Pack had success Thursday against the Cavs attacking the basket in the first half, leading 29-27 at the break, but the second half belonged to Virginia.
Markell Johnson was magical at times Wednesday against the Tigers, hitting the winning two free throws and scoring 23 points. Johnson had 13 points against the Cavs, who slowed down the point guard at times with 6-7 De’Andre Hunter and his wide wingspan.
The Wolfpack (22-11) expects to be headed to the NCAA tournament for a second straight season under Keatts. It’s not the way the Pack wanted to exit the ACC tournament, but beating Clemson may have been the victory needed to get in the NCAAs.
“We sit and wait for the (NCAA) selection committee to decide,” Pack senior Torin Dorn said. “Winning 10 games against teams in the toughest conference in the country is not easy. I just say let our resume speak for itself.”
The Wolfpack took Virginia into overtime during the season, losing 66-65 in late-January in Raleigh and were able to get the Cavs to play at a quicker tempo at times and take some bad shots.
“Today, they didn’t,” Keatts said “They stayed the course. They ran their stuff.”
The Wolfpack had another ragged start Thursday. After the first eight minutes, the Cavs had an 18-10 lead as Guy scored 11 points, knocking down two 3’s.
DJ Funderburk, who had 10 of his 12 points in the first half, gave the Pack a lift with a pair of free throws and a three-point play. That jumpstarted a 14-0 run, and the Pack had the lead at halftime, 29-27.
“But defensively we didn’t apply the same pressure in the second half we did in the first,” Dorn said.
With Virginia leading 43-37, Funderburk took a finger in the right eye from Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite and left the game. That hurt the Pack. When he returned it was 52-41, Cavs.
Keatts is hopeful the only suspense Sunday will be in learning where the Pack opens NCAA play and the opponent.
“I feel good about us,” he said.