RALEIGH, N.C. — Play, prepare, play. Such is the rhythm of NCAA tournament basketball. No time to exhale, reflect or sync your iPhone. One day between games, that spent scouting, practicing and recovering.
This is what made Virginia's game at North Carolina State on Saturday intriguing. How would the Cavaliers, and the Wolfpack for that matter, respond to a second game in three days?
Such tests arise each regular season, but for programs that haven't sniffed the NCAA tournament recently -- Virginia last qualified in 2007, N.C. State in 2006 -- they often pass without notice.
Not this season. Having already exceeded last year's victory total and with the ACC's stingiest defense and an all-conference caliber power forward leading its offense, 19th-ranked Virginia is very much an NCAA contender.
The Cavaliers reinforced that notion with a 61-60 road victory. This they did despite making just four second-half field goals and losing the rebounding war — and it was hand-to-hand combat at times on the boards — 42-25, an even more astounding 18-5 on the offensive end.
"You try to steal them on the road," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, "and tonight we did. … I think I'll watch this tape and scratch my head. … But we'll take it."
Virginia (17-3, 4-2 ACC) led for the final 28 minutes and by as many as 10 points in the second half. But State (15-7, 4-3) drew within 61-60 on Scott Wood's 3-pointer with 46.3 seconds remaining, and after a Sammy Zeglinski miss, the Wolfpack had a shot to win.
But the Cavaliers defended wisely and aggressively on the final possession, forcing Lorenzo Brown into a harried 3-pointer from the right wing that was not close. Credit forward Akil Mitchell, who fought through a screen and used his 6-foot-8 frame to disrupt the 6-5 Brown.
"We said, 'This is what we do. We're a defensive-minded team,'" Bennett said of the game's final timeout with 7.8 seconds left.
Virginia was far better defensively in the second half than first, limiting State to 35.5 percent shooting and a 1-for-11 stretch that allowed the Cavaliers to seize command.
"I think they're one of the more talented offensive teams we've played," Bennett said.
C.J. Leslie scored 17 for the Pack, but Richard Howell was Virginia's biggest issue. He had 11 points and 18 rebounds before fouling out.
As usual, forward Mike Scott was indispensable for the Cavs. He scored 18, with Zeglinski adding 12 on four 3-pointers.
The first half's rapid-fire pace was standard for State, foreign to Virginia. But when Zeglinski is making threes and Scott is hitting fades, the Cavaliers are capable of playing faster than AARP speed.
Virginia led 38-31 at halftime, its most productive opening period since Dec. 3 against Longwood (43 points). This despite a 19-9 rebounding deficit and thanks to 60-percent shooting.
Scott's knack for splitting double-teams and making shots over blanket defense left Leslie screaming in frustration after a Scott bucket late in the first half.
Already saddled with a depleted bench, Bennett juggled his lineup after forwards Darion Atkins and Mitchell each committed two early fouls and Mitchell dinged an ankle.
The Cavaliers were fresh off a 66-49 home conquest of Boston College, the equivalent of an early-round NCAA game at best. The Eagles are among the ACC's worst teams this season.
N.C. State, not very tall but very athletic, was a step up in class. Moreover, Virginia's day between games included a bus junket to Raleigh.
Finally, the Wolfpack, like most postseason opponents, was an unknown. Sure, players such as Wood and Leslie were familiar, but their new coach, Mark Gottfried, was not.
How would the Cavaliers compete? What might we learn about their minds and their legs?
This is, after all, a thin roster depleted not only by mid-season injury (Assane Sene) but also transfer (KT Harrell and James Johnson).
Virginia faced similar tests at the Paradise Jam, where it played three games in four days. But that was in November, when legs were fresh and the roster stocked.
Legs are tired now, and the Cavaliers again face a relatively quick turnaround. They'll take an NCAA-mandated day off Sunday before practicing Monday for Tuesday's home game against Clemson.
They'll do so knowing they can handle a postseason-type grind.
"Always thankful," Bennett said, "never satisfied."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times