Colorado State cruises past Virginia in First Four

DAYTON, Ohio — For nearly 14 minutes of game time and nearly an hour of real time, the ball did not go through Virginia's basket even once.

The Cavaliers have been prone to sluggish offensive production — both this season and in the past — but Tuesday's lull was particularly painful. Virginia took a spot in the NCAA Tournament that many felt should have gone elsewhere, to a Big East team or perhaps Indiana State. Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said his team “maxed out” its regular season potential and came into fourth place with real excitement.

Instead, Colorado State was the team that validated its status and showed that it perhaps deserved a stronger seed. The 10th-seeded Rams stifled the offense of fellow 10th-seeded Virginia and, perhaps most surprisingly, found cracks in the Cavaliers' elite defense, cruising to a 67-42 victory at UD Arena.

Colorado State advances in the Midwest Region and will next face No. 7 seed Texas in a first-round game on Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“We felt like we had a chance to win here tonight, but that's a Hall of Fame coach right there,” Rams coach Niko Medved said of Bennett. “This is an amazing program, and I have an incredible amount of respect for it. So I didn't expect this to come tonight at all.”

After Virginia star Reece Beckman hit two free throws with 9:20 left in the first half, the Cavaliers didn't score again until Beckman made a jumper with 16:37 to play in the contest. The drought included 19 consecutive missed shots and spanned 13:53 of game time and 59 minutes of real time, which included 20 minutes of the first half.

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Colorado State held Virginia to five field goals and 14 points in the first half, the fewest by an ACC team in the first half of an NCAA Tournament game since Wake Forest scored 10 against Butler in the first round in 2001. Virginia reached 40 points with 1:59 into the game, eclipsing his own record for fewest points by an ACC team in the Big Dance (39 against Florida in 2017).

“They are one of the slowest teams, if not the slowest team to play, offensively, in the country,” Medved said. “But if you look at us, we're one of the top two teams in the country in terms of defensive tempo, which means we force teams to play late in the shot clock.”

Rams guards Nick Clifford and Josiah Strong held Beckman and Isaac McNeely, Virginia's top two scoring options, to a combined 6-of-29 shooting. After a 27-point first half, Colorado State consistently found holes in Virginia's trademark defense, as forward Joel Scott (23 points) fired ) and Clifford (17) scored a 40-point second half for the Rams.

“We didn't let them take us out of our game plan,” Clifford said. “We stuck to what we were doing and were confident in it.”

Virginia's defense “crumbled,” Bennett said.

“They did a good job of pressuring the ball, being in the passing lanes and in the gap,” Cleveland guard Beckman said. “I thought we had some good attacks today too. The shots weren't falling.”

Colorado State “took it a little personally” being the 10th seed assigned to the Top Four after going 4-1 against Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 opponents in non-conference play and 9-9 against Quadrants 1 and 2 in the Mountain West, Clifford said.

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The Rams won their first NCAA Tournament game since 2013.

“It's hard to imagine that things will be better for us tonight,” Medved said.

Tuesday's outing couldn't have been much worse for Virginia, though the team's offensive struggles weren't a complete surprise. The Cavaliers ranked last in the ACC and 344th nationally in scoring defense (63.6 PPG). They have twice scored 41 points in losses and scored fewer than 50 points seven times, their most in a single season since 1947-48 (8).

Virginia has lost its first NCAA Tournament game for the fourth time in its past five appearances while winning a national title in the other (2019).

“We set the bar high here. We qualified for this tournament, which is not easy. We did well,” Bennett said. “But it's painful to get to this point and not progress. Of course, we have to keep adding quality players. We have to look at things, certainly, from the system's point of view.”

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