For University of Virginia coach Jeff Jones, losses in the Atlantic Coast Conference to North Carolina, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech go with the territory. But in the 20th game of the season, with his Cavaliers trailing Clemson by eight points at the half, the third-year coach had had enough.
"We were struggling a bit at that point of the season, so at halftime I challenged a couple of players, essentially, to wake up," Jones said. "And they did. We won the game, and that's what really enabled us to turn the corner."
That 83-78 win over Clemson came one game before the Cavaliers won a squeaker over Duke that completed a season sweep of the Blue Devils. The fire that Jones noticed during the Clemson game continued for the remainder of the season, helping Virginia in its run to the Sweet 16, where the No. 6 seed Cavaliers (21-9) will face No. 2 seed Cincinnati (25-4) on Friday in East Rutherford, N.J.
Winners of the National Invitation Tournament last year, the Cavaliers lost Bryant Stith (Denver Nuggets), the school's all-time leading scorer, to graduation. They started the season with a youthful group that even Jones admitted had "a number of question marks." But with no proven star, the young players were up to the task of providing the answers.
"This basketball team has done a lot this season that people didn't think we could," Jones said. "Getting this far is a nice feeling. It says a lot about blue-collar ethics, and it says a lot about achieving as a team without a marquee name."
If he isn't so already, sophomore guard Cory Alexander is a marquee player in the making. A 14.7-points-per-game scorer during the regular season, Alexander tied a career high with 27 points in Virginia's 78-66 first-round win over Manhattan, and followed with a 17-point effort on Sunday in a 71-56 victory over Atlantic 10 champion Massachusetts.
"Cory Alexander is the finest player we've played all year," Manhattan coach Fran Fraschilla said.
One of the main contributors against Massachusetts was Ted Jeffries, who at 6 feet 9 and 247 pounds is considered small and slow by ACC standards. But going against a Massachusetts front line of Lou Roe and Harper Williams that was expected to dominate, Jeffries came through with 14 points and helped limit Roe and Williams -- both first-team All-Atlantic 10 selections -- to a combined nine points.
Forward Junior Burrough (17 points against Manhattan) and Jason Williford (14 points, 10 rebounds against Massachusetts) also came up with solid efforts for Virginia.
"I heard someone refer to us as a team of plodders, but we're best at a full-court game," Jones said.
The Cavaliers had an up-and-down season that began with an 11-game winning streak capped by a 77-69 win at Duke on Jan. 17. Virginia started the season ranked 25th, but jumped to the No. 7 position with what was at the time the nation's longest winning streak.
"Even with the winning streak we had some doubters, but then we beat Duke and a lot of people went overboard," Jones said. "I had to caution people not to expect too much. We weren't a great team, but we were a good team."
Jones' request for caution was proven when the Cavaliers lost four of their next five games, including a six-point defeat to Virginia Tech.
The Cavaliers dropped out of the polls earlier this month after consecutive losses to North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. They upset the Demon Deacons in the first round of the ACC tournament before losing to North Carolina in the semifinals.
As Jones and his players noted over the weekend, the strength of the ACC has prepared the Cavaliers for the NCAA tournament, but Virginia will be tested by Cincinnati's tough defense. Regardless of what happens, this Virginia team has already achieved more than anyone expected.
"We're definitely happy to have gotten this far," Alexander said. "What we've done this year, after last season, is helping us make a statement for this program."