Virginia’s postseason fate may well hinge on its ability to defend the ACC’s most-balanced offense Friday in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
North Carolina State defeated Virginia Tech 80-63 on Thursday to earn that quarterfinal collision with U.Va. Though the Wolfpack (23-9) is seeded fifth and the Cavaliers (21-10) fourth, it’s State that is assured an NCAA tournament bid.
Conversely, to avoid a nervous Selection Sunday, Virginia needs to win Friday, and perhaps even Saturday in the semifinals. U.Va. has not reached the ACC semifinals since 1995.
The Cavaliers lead the ACC in scoring defense and rank second in opponents’ field goal percentage, and they limited the Wolfpack to its second-lowest point total of the season in a 58-55 home victory Jan. 29. But State’s all-league point guard, Lorenzo Brown, rolled his ankle midway through the first half of that game and did not return.
Brown missed two subsequent contests, both of which the Wolfpack lost. His impact was immeasurable against Virginia Tech on Thursday as he contributed nine points, seven rebounds and 12 assists, the latter a State record for the ACC tournament.
“We’re tremendous (on offense), and he obviously does a great job distributing the ball,” said Scott Wood, the Wolfpack’s wing guard and the ACC’s most-prolific 3-point shooter. “But we know that’s not going to be our problem (against Virginia). Our problem’s going to be on the other end. We just have to make sure we get in a stance and continue to play good defense.”
State ranks 11th among 12 ACC teams in scoring defense, but Brown made the ACC’s all-defensive team, and deservedly so. Thursday he limited Virginia Tech’s Erick Green to 15 points, 10 below his Division I-best average, on 5-of-19 shooting.
Virginia’s Joe Harris scored a game-high 22 points in the victory over State, while post players Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey combined for 35 points and 19 rebounds. Mitchell and Tobey’s production countered 32 points and 25 rebounds by the Wolfpack’s C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell.
Leslie was ill and did not start at Virginia, but he still managed 20 points and a season-high 14 boards.
“Joe Harris is a great player,” Wood said. “They’ve got some (other) good pieces there we’re going to have to defend. We just have to play good on the defensive end, and we should be OK.”
Each of the Wolfpack’s starters – Leslie, Howell, Brown, Wood and freshman T.J. Warren – averages at least 12.1 points. Rookie Rodney Purvis averages 8.9 off the bench.
Jontel Evans’ on-the-ball pressure of Brown, and low-post traps of Howell and Leslie will be Virginia’s defensive keys.
“They’re a great defensive team,” Brown said. “We’ve just got to make smart decisions. They can jump out to a lead at any moment.”
Fitting for such an important game, Friday will showcase seven players who received all-conference honors. Howell and Harris made first team, Brown second team, Leslie and Mitchell third team. Warren made the all-freshman squad, while Evans joined Brown on the all-defensive team.
More than seven weeks have passed since the teams’ lone regular-season meeting, and at least one participant recalls little.
“I remember we lost,” Wood said. “That’s it.”
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