CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas - Virginia won just three games away from Charlottesville last season, which hurt their case come tournament time in March when the NCAA Tournament field was released.
Friday night, the Cavaliers won their second game away from home already this season as Anthony Gill scored a game-high 19 points to lead Virginia past SMU 76-73 in the semifinals of the Corpus Christi Challenge.
"We had to finish a game, and win it," Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. "I think that was important against a quality opponent. I told our guys that SMU is good and you had to earn a lot of what you got."
Virginia (6-1) will now play the winner of Missouri State-Texas A&M in the championship game on Saturday night.
Trailing by one with less than five seconds to play, SMU had a chance to take the lead, but junior center Yanick Moreira was called for a travel to give Virginia the ball. Joe Harris sealed the win with two free throws, capping a 15-point performance.
"(Moreira) tried to make a play to win the game," SMU coach Larry Brown said. "It was unfortunate, but they go 10 for 14 from the three and a lot of people got in foul trouble and that was hard to overcome."
SMU (5-2) was led by sophomore Nic Moore's 17 points. Markus Kennedy added 14.
"We got down six or seven and got back in the game," Brown said. "We had a couple of bad breaks, but when a team makes 10 three pointers and 23 free throws in the second half, it's pretty tough to overcome.
"I'm proud of our guys, we are going to get better. We are going to get a lot better. We did a lot of good things. I was proud."
There were 51 fouls called in the game as both teams made a living at the free throw line. SMU converted on 20 of their 26 attempts while Virginia made 26-of-36 including Harris' two clutch makes at the end of the game.
"For tonight we took a step forward," Bennett said when asked about his team's toughness. "It's a daily battle, it's a game-to-game thing. We need to make more deposits on the toughness side every day because in our league if you don't have it, you're going to get your doors blown off."
The Mustangs led by seven points with less than 15 minutes to play but allowed Gill and the Cavaliers to take the game over in the paint as Gill scored 17 of his career-high 19 points in the second half.
"Coach Bennett really emphasized getting the ball inside at halftime," Gill said. "Whenever I was out there I felt good and I felt good about the shots I was taking so I just shot them."
Virginia shot 57 percent in the second half and 45 percent for the game while SMU shot 49 percent on the night, the highest field goal percentage by a Cavalier opponent this season.
SMU outrebounded Virginia 33-29, the first time the Cavaliers have been beaten on the glass this year. Akil Mitchell led Virginia with a game-high nine boards.
The largest lead of the first half was six when Virginia was up 12-6 with 13:48 left.
Virginia made seven field goals in the first 20 minutes, with six of those from beyond the 3-point line. The Cavaliers were just 1-for-12 from two-point range but 6-for-8 from beyond the arc.
Virginia sophomore forward Evan Nolte came off the bench to score eight points in the first half but was called for his third foul late in the half. Guard Malcolm Brogdon contributed seven first-half points.
Moore scored seven points in the first half for SMU, which made 10-for-23 shots from the field.
SMU will play the loser of the Missouri State-Texas A&M in the consolation game.
NOTES: This was the first meeting between the schools. ... Brown, now in his second season with the Mustangs, has 197 wins as a college coach. ... Virginia is second in the nation in rebounding percentage at .603. ... With two 3-pointers in the first half, Virginia freshman G London Perrantes doubled his season total coming into the game.