By routing Syracuse, Virginia clinches ACC title and proves it’s a threat in March

Tears welled up in Virginia coach Tony Bennett's eyes as he made his way through the postgame handshake line and marveled at the pandemonium his team's 75-56 victory over Syracuse had caused.

Some players embraced one-another. Others stood on chairs, pumped their fists and high-fived fans in the crowd. And students poured onto the floor from both ends of the court in celebration of one of the momentous victories in recent memory for Virginia basketball.

Only two months ago, Virginia appeared to be one of the more disappointing teams in the nation after a mediocre non-conference performance that included losses to Green Bay, VCU and Wisconsin and a 35-point throttling at Tennessee. The Cavaliers have rebounded since then, however, parlaying timely offense and stingy defense into a 16-1 ACC record and the program's first outright ACC title in more than three decades.

Skeptics wondered whether Virginia's success might partially be a product of only facing Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse once apiece in league play, but the Cavaliers sent a message Saturday that they're no fluke.

They used disciplined man-to-man defense to force Syracuse to take contested jump shots on one end and used accurate 3-point shooting and timely offensive rebounding to shred the Orange's two-three zone at the other. As a result, Virginia pulled away over the last 10 minutes, finishing the game on a 35-16 run.

If Virginia's victory validated the Cavs as a team capable of making a deep March run, Syracuse's loss raised questions about whether the Orange will be worthy of a No. 1 seed.

Syracuse has dropped three of four since starting the season 25-0, the three losses coming at home against Boston College and then at Duke and Virginia. The Orange could easily fall to a No. 2 seed if Florida and Arizona don't collapse and Kansas and Wichita State both win out.

What's wrong with Syracuse is no mystery. It's offense is sputtering.

The Orange has shot 40 percent or below in each of its past five games. With a back injury limiting forward Jerami Grant to 13 minutes on Saturday, cold shooting from C.J. Fair (4 of 13), Trevor Cooney (4 of 12) and Tyler Ennis (4 of 11) was too much to overcome.

But much of the credit goes to Virginia, which is deserving of the ACC crown. Not only have the Cavs shot the highest percentage and surrendered the lowest percentage in league play, they've won their 16 ACC games by an average of 15.1 points.

Some of that is efficient offense. Some of that is stifling defense. And some of that is the team chemistry on display in the final minute when seldom-used walk-on Thomas Rogers buried a 3-pointer for the game's final basket with 32 seconds to go.

On a night when Virginia beat a top-five opponent and clinched the league title, its bench celebrated that shot more vociferously than any other.

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