RALEIGH, N.C. — Virginia has spent the entire season punishing opponents by locking down on them defensively or forcing them to guard their steady-paced offense until deep in the shot clock.
Mistakes add up, the frustration builds and the Cavaliers capitalize — a withering formula that now has Tony Bennett’s club following its Atlantic Coast Conference championship with its deepest NCAA tournament push in two decades.
Joe Harris scored 16 points and top-seeded Virginia shot 56 percent to beat Memphis 78-60 on Sunday night, earning its first trip to the round of 16 since 1995.
Anthony Gill added 13 points for the Cavaliers (30-6), who turned in a dominating performance while controlling the tempo and shutting down the eighth-seeded Tigers (24-10) at nearly every turn.
“Of course we try to come out and impose our will from the beginning,” said sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, one of five Cavaliers in double figures. “But if that doesn’t happen and we don’t break them right off the bat, we’re going to keep going and keep playing our type of defense and offense.
“And at some point, we’re going to wear them down and break their back.”
Virginia led by 15 at halftime and pushed that to 27 points late, picking up right where it left off in its strong finish to Friday’s win against Coastal Carolina.
It’s already been the program’s most successful season in decades, from winning the program’s first ACC tournament title since 1976 to tying the school single-season record for victories Sunday night. Now Virginia has another milestone: its first regional semifinal appearance since making it to a regional final in 1995.
And the Cavaliers, carrying a No. 1 seed for the first time since the days of Ralph Sampson, look ready to go even farther.
Next up is a trip to New York to face fourth-seeded Michigan State (28-8) on Friday night in the East Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
“To get to the Sweet 16, that’s the rarefied air of college basketball, and you’re going to have to play,” Bennett said. “We know who’s waiting, we know how good they are, and it will be us trying to test our game against one of the teams that’s playing its best basketball right now.”
On top of that, it’s Virginia — not traditional powers Duke and North Carolina or league newcomer Syracuse — that stands as the only ACC team still alive in the round of 16.
The reasons were all on display against a Memphis team eager to speed up the Cavaliers and score in transition to avoid Virginia’s stingy set defense.
Instead, the Cavaliers checked nearly everything off their to-do list, steadily overpowering the Tigers with confident efficiency.
They knocked down open looks. They played tough in the paint to contest Tigers drives. They patiently ran their offense and snatched down every loose rebound when the Tigers missed chances to cut into the deficit.
“This is just the way we play,” Harris said. “If people are not familiar with watching us, we love to just grind it out. We love the long defensive possessions. We love just making teams work when they’re defending us. It’s just kind of what Virginia basketball is all about.”
There was no sign of the Virginia team that looked out of sorts while falling behind by 10 in the first half against the 16th-seeded Chanticleers. Only the one that put Coastal Carolina away in the final 9 minutes.
While Harris led the offensive effort, Virginia also had a 40-28 rebounding advantage while backed by a loud crowd filled with Cavs fans who made the drive one state south for the start of the tournament push.
Austin Nichols scored 15 points to lead the Tigers, who shot 41 percent — including 3 of 13 from 3-point range — and scored 17 points fewer than their season average. Leading scorer Joe Jackson, who was averaging 14.3 points, finished with seven on 3-for-6 shooting.
“They’ve got to be the best defensive team I’ve ever played against in college,” Jackson said. “They never lose sight of the basketball, and they just help each other out on every possession. You will never get an easy layup on them.”
Memphis was looking for its first trip to the round of 16 since 2009, John Calipari’s final year as coach before Josh Pastner took over. Senior Geron Johnson promised shortly after the American Athletic Conference tournament that this year would be different and the Tigers would get two NCAA wins.
Instead, their season ended on the tournament’s opening weekend for the fourth straight year.
“Virginia came out, played Virginia basketball: out-toughed us, out-aggressived us,” Johnson said. “They made shots. Every time we made a mistake, they capitalized on it with a bucket. There’s no excuses. They beat us fair and square.”