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Virginia’s Presence in Final Eight Is No Fluke

The Washington Post

This is the sort of tap-tap roll that eventually builds to a triumphal crescendo for Virginia: fairly early in the second half, mighty Oklahoma starts a run that creates a three-point lead. Instead of hurrying next time down the court, the Cavaliers take it sloooow and easy.

Patiently, Virginia runs the clock down, but Richard Morgan misses. As would happen surprisingly often, the Cavaliers get the rebound and go into another semi-stall, this time getting two points on Bryant Stith free throws.

And so it went. The clever counterpunchers knocked out a heavyweight, although no basketball Mike Tyson, Thursday night. Although startling, Virginia’s six-point victory was no fluke.

“It’s not like we were seeded way down,” coach Terry Holland reminded those bent on David-slays-Goliath angles. The Cavaliers’ fifth seed, after all, meant NCAA handicappers figured them among the 20 best teams in the country.

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Perhaps that is why Holland stayed on his chair and calmly applauded pull-ahead free throws in the final seconds, seemingly no more excited than at the end of a predictable film.

Truth is, the upset had gone as scripted. Unheralded Cavaliers inside players did a splendid defensive job on Stacey King the first half. Holland gambled the Sooners would bomb out on their three-point bombs -- and won.

The players were more playful at game’s end. Before one of the major heroes, John Crotty, went to the line for the final foul shots, freshman sensation Stith jumped toward sharpshooter Morgan, who slapped hands with anyone close.

Even director Holland could not have imagined these halftime numbers: one basket and one rebound for all-American center King; six points and six rebounds for Cavaliers center Brent Dabbs.

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“If you look at the stat sheet, it might not seem so,” said Virginia point guard Crotty. “But our inside men did a great job. Stopping King (until late in the second half). Cleaning the glass in both halves really well.”

Much better was another OU all-American, Mookie Blaylock, missing nearly everything he launched. That was before a collision near the end of the first half that caused him to play with one eye half shut in the second half.

“He didn’t seem that different (after the injury),” Crotty said. “It was tough for him to get into the flow.”

Crotty was a major reason.

"(Blaylock) makes a pass out front, then goes through and usually scores (from the baseline) on a return pass. I tried to deny that pass.”

This was something the stat sheet also failed to show -- Crotty’s keen defense. Which elevated him even more, what with those eight assists and breaking the Sooners’ full-court press often and routinely.

Typical was Crotty bursting through a double team after getting an inbouds pass and blowing by Blaylock near midcourt, driving toward the basket and drawing a two-shot foul.

Also on display regularly was Stith, who showed uncommon maturity on inside postups against larger Sooners.

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“We didn’t want to settle for turnaround jump shots,” Holland said. “We wanted to get a shoulder by ‘em. If we can slide by ‘em, there’s a good chance for an offensive rebound.”

Or some foul shots, the Sooners playing grab-grab too often when a Dabbs or Matt Blundin would slip inside for an offensive rebound. As Holland had hoped, his version of Blaylock was accurate enough at critical times.

Yes, Morgan missed more than half his shots for the game. But when two points would be more than useful, Morgan nailed a three-pointer.

“I have to look for an excuse to take Richard and John out of the game,” Holland admitted.

Oklahoma eventually worked the ball to King the second half -- and gained a 72-69 lead. Once more, Virginia failed to get giddy -- and Morgan immediately hit a trey.

“I wasn’t looking for a three,” Holland said. “But Richard was.”

He always is.

Even Morgan stayed on a reasonably tight rein at important times. The Sooners tried to lure such as Morgan into two-one-one situations off the press that King could handle himself. It worked a couple of times.

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As almost always happened, Morgan or Stith would move toward King, than back off and get the ball to the calm and surehanded Crotty.

“We’re at the stage where we can play anywhere,” said Crotty, still appreciative that Michigan and North Carolina fans joined Cavaliers crazies as the upset became more and more evident. Several seconds before the final buzzer, Rupp Arena was abuzz with: “ACC ... ACC ... ACC.”

Also, Virginians could not resist this dig at OU coach Billy Tubbs, who had allowed his team to run up a 48-point victory early last season.

“Good job, Billy,” came a wave of sarcasm. “Goog job, Billy.”

That was shortly after this bit of heart-stabbing from little Crotty and Blundin at another critical point. Crotty moved toward the right baseline and a couple of Sooners leaped to trap him.

What happened made it seem as though Crotty planned the trouble so he could execute the marvelous escape that followed. Slick as can be, he whipped a bounce pass between some Sooners legs and the baseline, to the very open Blundin for a layup.

“We isolated certain guys at certain times,” Morgan said. But always in a wonderfully coordinated way.


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