CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They stood at the doorstep of the site of their greatest defeat, inches from the hardwood where they had become a national punch line.
Virginia returned to the Spectrum Center on Thursday afternoon for the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, and in the moments before the Cavaliers stepped onto the court, they congregated in an arena hallway, the smoke for their imminent entrance rising to their knees. Light chatter gave way to silence. They were back.
The Cavaliers appeared haunted by the ghosts of last March early on against N.C. State, trailing by two points at halftime. Their shots weren’t falling, and the Wolfpack were having their way in the paint. Was it happening again?
Something changed after the break. No. 1 seed Virginia anchored itself in the present, scrubbing away painful memories of Retrievers black and gold, and rolled past No. 8 seed N.C. State, 76-56.
Virginia will play the winner of No. 5-seed Virginia Tech vs. No. 4-seed Florida State in the tournament semifinals Friday evening.
The Cavaliers insist they have put last season’s heartbreak in Charlotte behind them, when they lost to UMBC and became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the history of the men’s tournament.
Virginia, in fact, is expected by many to be one of the final two teams standing for Saturday’s tournament championship. But the team was slow to develop a rhythm Thursday. Aside from guard Kyle Guy, who scored 14 of his game-high 29 points in the first half, Virginia struggled offensively, shooting 41.7 percent from the field.
The Wolfpack outscored the Cavaliers 16-10 in the paint and won the rebounding battle, 19-17.
Virginia received a boost from an unexpected source. Center Jack Salt, the broad-shouldered New Zealender, is known for setting screens and playing tough defense. Yet as guards Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter struggled with their shots, it was Salt who complemented Guy’s hot shooting.
Salt got things started with an up-and-under layup in the half’s early moments, bringing the Cavaliers players on the bench to their feet. They rose again as he knocked down his free throw — Salt entered the game shooting 45.9 percent from the charity stripe, a career high. He finished with a career-best 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting.
As the Cavaliers pulled away, the Wolfpack fans in attendance fell silent. The N.C. State campus is less than 200 miles from the Spectrum Center, and in the first half the fans roared as the Wolfpack appeared primed to avenge their regular season overtime loss to Virginia.
It wasn’t to be.
Virginia took control of the game, as it is wont to do, grinding N.C. State down to size. The final buzzer finally put the Wolfpack out of their misery.