WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tony Bennett knows how long a road his basketball program has traveled to reach this point, and he isn't taking the moment for granted.
After Friday night's 73-68 win over Miami, Bennett's Virginia Cavaliers will face No. 7 North Carolina in the ACC Championship on Saturday night. It'll be the second time in the last three years that his team has played one of the league's blue bloods for conference supremacy.
"Our program, we base it on what we call pillars," the coach said after the win. "The first one is humility. They don't think too highly of themselves or too low. They have a true identity."
On the court, that identity has translated to methodically wearing out the opposition with suffocating defense, solid rebounding and the stellar play of senior guard and ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.
The Cavs will face a tougher version of Carolina, however, than the one they defeated two weeks ago; the Tar Heels have relied on their size in the paint to win most of this season, but on Friday night showed what happens when they can do that and shoot well from the outside with Marcus Paige. As Notre Dame can attest, it can turn into a rout quickly.
"We have to stay humble," Cavs forward Anthony Gill said. "We have to be ready from the beginning. They're going to throw their best punch at us. They're playing really good ball right now. They're a really good team and we just have to be ready."
Nevertheless, Saturday night will be a heavyweight fight that will not only decide the conference title, but could very well determine whether or not two top seeds in the NCAA Tournament will come from the ACC.
"They're an amazing team," Cavs center Michael Tobey said of Carolina. "I mean, every team they just load up with more and more great players....they're a deep team, [but] I think we're seeing more this postseason, these last two games, about how deep of a team we are."
"I just think that we have to not change anything that we do," added Gill. "We have a system that Coach Bennett has structured for us to play offensively and defensively, and if we run it to the best of our abilities, I think we'll have a good chance."
Without a doubt, most eye balls will be fixated on the Paige vs. Brogdon matchup. But numerous Cavs players each pointed to a more important key to defeating Carolina: Limiting points in transition and preventing offensive rebounds. "Two big things we do really well," guard London Perrantes said. "Two things we try to pride ourselves on the defensive side."
Should Virginia prevail, it would be the first time an ACC school not named Duke or Carolina has won two conference championships over three seasons since Wake Forest went back-to-back in 1995 and 1996. It'd be quite the accomplishment for a program that had won just 15 games in Bennett's first season in Charlottesville six years ago.
"It hasn't been easy," Bennett said. "This year has been a little different than the last one...we're looking forward to the opportunity and we'll have to be at our best."