CHARLOTTESVILLE — Up front, let's be clear. Virginia's basketball team remains a fur piece from serious NCAA tournament consideration. But if the Cavaliers continue their current surge and celebrate on Selection Sunday, they'll think back to Tuesday night.
Ranked 19th, North Carolina State marked Virginia's first game against an Associated Press top-25 squad this season. That's the latest the Cavaliers have encountered their first ranked opponent since 1968, a commentary on the ACC and Virginia's non-conference schedule better left for another time.
Moreover, the Wolfpack was the most physical and athletic team Tony Bennett's crew had faced this season.
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John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, VA
Thanks to Mike Tobey and Akil Mitchell inside, and Joe Harris everywhere, Virginia prevailed 58-55 at John Paul Jones Arena.
Yes, State forward C.J. Leslie was ailing with flu-like symptoms, though he still managed 20 points and 14 rebounds in 30 minutes. And yes, Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown rolled his left ankle midway through the first half and did not return, depleting a rotation that's usually only six deep.
"I'm very aware that they lost perhaps the best guard in the league … and that was to our benefit," Bennett said. "But we still had to make plays, and we persevered."
Exactly. Virginia persevered despite an early 10-point deficit and despite missing 12-of-16 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc and shooting a pedestrian 40.7 percent overall.
Making plays? With the Cavaliers trailing 49-45, Harris hit two free throws, Justin Anderson blocked a T.J. Warren shot at the rim, Tobey scored inside and contested a Richard Howell miss.
With the game knotted at 54, Mitchell (14 points and 12 rebounds) made a jump shot. Finally, with the Cavaliers nursing a 56-55 edge, Jontel Evans, who was 3-for-12 from the foul line on the season, including 0-of-3 for the game, made both ends of a one-and-one with 26.1 seconds remaining.
When Paul Jesperson deflected Scott Wood's 3-pointer in the waning seconds, Virginia (15-5, 5-2 ACC) had its most significant victory this season.
Harris scored a game-high 22 points and used his much-improved ball-handling to beat Warren off the dribble. Tobey, a 6-foot-11 freshman, contributed 13 points, seven rebounds and credible defense against the far stronger Howell.
Moreover, Tobey showed shooting touch with both hands, fundamentally sound play that's sadly unusual among today's young post players.
Virginia entered Tuesday on an undeniable surge that included 11 consecutive home victories and three straight overall. Most impressive, the defensive-minded Cavaliers had been shooting at rates unseen for years.
For example, back-to-back games of better than 50 percent shooting against Virginia Tech and Boston College were their first such stretch against ACC opponents since 2005. Their 77.3 percent second-half shooting against Boston College was their best half since a 1984 win over Georgia Tech.
But the notion of Virginia as an NCAA tournament bubble team was overstated.
The Cavaliers began Tuesday No. 109 on the Rating Percentage Index ratings used by the NCAA selection committee. That's not in the neighborhood of the top-60 usually required for at-large consideration.
Yes, the NCAA chose No. 70 Air Force in 2004 and No. 74 New Mexico in 1999, but those are rare exceptions, and still far above Virginia's standing.
What the Cavaliers need are top-50 victories, and the Wolfpack (16-5, 5-3) was arguably their most promising target. Virginia had to win to harbor any serious NCAA hopes.
The Cavaliers won their previous encounters with the top 50, at Wisconsin and home against North Carolina, but that's not a large enough sample for the committee. Alas, for Virginia, due to ACC schedule rotation, top-50 chances are few.
But as February beckons, Virginia stands second in the ACC behind Miami (15-3, 6-0). Keep winning, and all the RPI computations will be moot. The Cavaliers will be too good to ignore.
As Bennett is fond of saying and said again Tuesday: "I like what I'm seeing."