No. 2 seed Virginia left with frustration, futility after early exit

As Virginia walked off the court after losing to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, there were no easy answers. 

CHARLOTTE, NC — After an NCAA tournament loss, the postgame locker room is usually a difficult place to be. There are tears — lots of tears. If the tears have stopped, then plenty of red faces remain. Players hide anguished faces in towels, or drape the towel or T-shirt or whatever item is nearby over their heads, wanting to have a moment to themselves. Or maybe hoping it will make everything disappear.

Virginia’s locker room in the aftermath of its Round of 32 loss to No. 7 seed Michigan State was nothing like that.

There were no tears — none visible, anyway — and very few red faces. There were no moments where players got choked up being asked about their season being over, no one staring intently at the ground, nothing.

Standout guard Malcolm Brogdon’s face was blank. He’d just returned to the locker room from being at the podium with his head coach and senior teammate Darion Atkins. In that setting, he’d been frank, intelligent, forthcoming — typical Brogdon.

But upon reaching the locker room, he just didn’t appear to have anything left. The second-team All-American was minutes removed from a 3-of-12 shooting performance for nine points, snapping a streak of six straight games in double figures. It was the first time he failed to hit double digits in a Virginia loss since December 2013.

Brogdon stared straight ahead, eyes focused forward but looking at nothing, as reporters asked him a few more questions for the final time this season.

"I think we had open shots, and we missed them," Brogdon said, flatly and simply. "There are nights like that — you just hope they’re not in the NCAA tournament."

Virginia shot 29.8 percent from the field. It didn’t seem to matter where the Cavaliers were shooting from, or who was shooting it, or how open they were.

When Brogdon hit his first 3-pointer of the game with 27 seconds left — Virginia’s first in nearly 32 minutes of game action and just its second made 3-pointer of the entire game — he rolled his eyes. Too little, too late. Technically, the game was not over. That 3-pointer cut the lead to six. But it felt like a much taller mountain to climb. The Cavaliers had to make four of their final 10 shots to even get to that 29.8 percent mark.

"We couldn’t hit anything. We couldn’t make anything," Virginia sophomore point guard London Perrantes said, shaking his head for emphasis. "That’s what it felt like — it felt like there was something on the rim."

The game seemed to be following a typical Virginia blueprint in the early going — play badly early on offense but play good enough defense to stay in the game and make a run when its style wears down the opponent. Except there was no wearing down the Spartans.

Michigan State made plays whenever it needed to, dissecting Virginia’s defense for the perfect shot late in the clock. Sometimes, the Spartans would drain a contested improbable look, as guard Travis Trice did in the early going. Sometimes, they’d miss — and then a Branden Dawson would snake inside for an offensive rebound and putback, or a reset of the possession. Another 35 seconds of defense.

"Doing that all game is going to take a toll on you, and it makes you tired, and then having to go down and run offense as well," Perrantes said. "It felt like they couldn’t miss anything. Denzel Valentine hit a 3-pointer that hit every single part of the rim and went in. … We tried. It still felt like we couldn’t make anything, regardless of where we shot it from. It’s just one of those days."

Darion Atkins is Virginia’s lone senior of consequence, and the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year had said going into the game that it would be a battle of toughness and physicality.

He held up his end of the bargain, especially in the first half, scoring six of his team’s 18 points and pulling down eight of the team’s 17 rebounds, not to mention blocking two shots. He was a beast in the paint. But when asked if he felt alone in the first half, he answered as he usually does: frankly, pulling no punches.

"To be honest, yeah. I felt like I wanted it more than a few other guys on the team. I felt like I tried to rally everyone together and bring everyone together in the second half," Atkins said. "I feel like we played a lot better in the second half than the first half. It was just a little bit too late to try to get things going."

Atkins wasn’t in tears. If anything, he seemed angry. Frustrated. Disappointed, but in the annoyed sense of the word. There is no next year for Atkins, but there was plenty of talk about next year in the locker room. The Cavaliers could return everyone except Atkins from a team that has now won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles.

But Virginia has also been a top-two seed in each of the past two NCAA tournaments and has yet to make it past the Sweet 16. It actually made it further last season, losing to No. 4 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16 during a classic game in which both teams played well.

This game was not that. Michigan State is not as good as it was a year ago. Virginia just gave itself no chance with the way it shot the ball and the hole it dug for itself early. Michigan State made more plays.

And now this Virginia team, which was supposed to be better than last year’s, finds itself out of the tourney earlier and left wondering how far the program has come in spite of the overall success it has enjoyed under coach Tony Bennett.

"It’s disappointing. Until we win that championship, what we strive for all year, it’s going to be disappointing. We could (lose) in the championship game and it’d still be disappointing," Perrantes said. "Regardless of where you lose and where you finish every season, if it’s not with a win, you’re going to be disappointed.

"I feel like we had a lot more to go. We got cut short. We cut ourselves short."

Virginia had a great season. Bennett reminded his guys of that in the postgame locker room. The Cavaliers were 30-4. They were rolling before junior guard Justin Anderson broke his pinky in mid-February. Maybe if he’d stayed healthy, things would have been different. But Anderson didn’t stay healthy, and Virginia still did quite well without him. It didn’t appear to be an Anderson issue down the stretch as he was reintegrated into the lineup for the postseason, but Virginia lost three of its final five games (only one without Anderson).

Back in the locker room, the most sadness was on the face of Anderson, who seemed to be running through hypotheticals in his own mind even as he was answering questions. What if things had been different for him, and for this team?

"It hurts a little bit more, I guess, from last year because we really thought we had a chance to make it to the championship game and give ourselves a chance to win a national championship," Anderson said. "And then that’s taken from you so suddenly and you’re done, your season is done.

"That you can’t do anything else with this team is the worst part, man, because I just want to be able to keep playing with this team and try to maximize our potential. Coming up short tonight hurt a lot."

The Cavaliers will likely be picked at or close to the top of the league again next fall. And they very well could win another ACC title and earn another top seed in the NCAA tournament.

March is arbitrary, cruel and unforgiving, though. And it has not been kind to the Cavaliers. Atkins can’t help but look at the way his career ended differently as a result.

"It’s terrible to end this way. I felt like we were going to reach excellence this year and go far, but I guess it wasn’t in the book for us," Atkins said. "Very tough to swallow. I didn’t see it ending this way. I didn’t see us finishing right now."

The wheels turned in Anderson’s head as he remembered all the missed shots. He pointed the finger at himself. He had one good game offensively in the four since his return from injury. Maybe if he’d made a shot or two early, his teammates would have followed suit.

"We can woulda, coudla, shoulda all we want," Anderson said, "but hats off to Michigan State and what they did."

The Spartans are off to yet another Sweet 16, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has practically made that a formality for his club. Unfortunately, Virginia has been the victim the last two years.

Bennett and Virginia will look forward to next year. And he’ll keep building that program. But until the March success comes, fair or not, the questions will linger.