No. 2 Virginia enters ACC stretch run still atop league
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Virginia emerged from a tough stretch against ranked teams and Hall of Fame coaches still solidly atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
Still, coach Tony Bennett doesn't want his second-ranked Cavaliers to let up as the league race pushes into its stretch run, especially as they adjust to life without injured starter Justin Anderson.
''When you lose a player like that, everybody has an opportunity to step up,'' Bennett said. ''But it's going to be a little stiffer or steeper challenge.''
Virginia (21-1, 9-1 ACC) followed its first loss against Mike Krzyzewski's Duke team with a road win against Roy Williams and North Carolina, then beat Louisville and another Hall of Famer in Rick Pitino last weekend. That put the Cavaliers two games ahead of No. 4 Duke, No. 9 Louisville, No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 12 UNC in the loss column heading into Wednesday's game at North Carolina State.
Behind that group is a crowd desperate to climb toward an NCAA tournament bid, including the Wolfpack.
''I think if we made a big deal out of this: `OK, we got through the gauntlet' ... and now you take a breath or relax, big mistake,'' Bennett said. ''If we get tired of trying to do it the way we have and what we do and how we do it, that would be a mistake.''
Wednesday will mark Virginia's first game without Anderson, who had surgery for a broken finger on his shooting hand and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.
Anderson is the team's second-leading scorer at 13.4 points per game and shoots an ACC-best 48 percent from 3-point range. The injury will likely mean more minutes for junior Evan Nolte and freshman Marial Shayok.
N.C. State (14-10, 5-6) had a week off after losing at Wake Forest and is going for a fourth straight NCAA trip.
''We've stubbed our toe a few times. We know it,'' coach Mark Gottfried said. ''In this league, there's not a lot of forgiveness. ... The time is now. It's time to step up and get going.''
With Syracuse banning itself from the postseason while under NCAA investigation, that has removed at least one competitor for an NCAA tournament bid for N.C. State, Clemson, Pittsburgh and Miami. All four are hovering around .500 in the league and entered the week with similar RPI rankings between 55th and 76th.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell said it would take ''consistent play and a little bit of luck probably with some finishes'' to emerge from that crowded middle.
''A player might get hot and play well for a couple of weeks,'' Brownell said. ''Otherwise, I think it's just fighting and scratching and clawing and winning a couple of close games.''
Miami and N.C. State each have a marquee win against Duke, while Pitt beat Notre Dame. And those teams all have games that could help their cause, both against the top teams and each other.
As for the top of the league, Virginia closes the regular season at Louisville. That game, as well as the coming pair of Duke-UNC rivalry matchups and Notre Dame's trip to Louisville on March 4, could determine where things stand heading into Greensboro for the ACC tournament starting March 9.
''Duke's playing great basketball. Carolina's playing great basketball. Pitt's improving. We think we're playing good basketball,'' Pitino said. ''So I think it's going to come down to the last week of the year to see who wins the regular-season championship - and certainly it's up for grabs for anybody.''
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