GREENSBORO, N.C. — This was the ideal way for Virginia to step into a place where it has not been in two decades.
The sixth-ranked Cavaliers came out ahead in a grind-it-out battle with Pittsburgh, winning 51-48 to head to the ACC tournament championship game for the first time in 20 years.
“A blue-collar game, kind of put your hard-hat on,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after Saturday afternoon’s game at the Greensboro Coliseum. “(Playing like that) is our best chance to play for a championship.”
Top-seeded Virginia (27-6) meets the Duke-North Carolina State winner in Sunday’s final.
Guard Joe Harris scored 12 points, while Virginia guard Justin Anderson blocked guard James Robinson’s potential tying 3-point shot in the final second to preserve the outcome in the semifinal.
After fouling twice with two fouls to give on Pittsburgh’s last possession, Bennett chose not to have the Cavaliers foul again because that would have sent the Panthers to the free-throw line.
“I just felt comfortable having them take a tough, contested shot,” Bennett said. “That was obviously a great play by Justin.”
In many ways, it might have been fitting for the stingy Cavaliers to seal their spot in the title game with a defensive play.
“We pride ourselves on being able to get stops,” Harris said.
The style of play is accompanied by plenty of low-scoring games, but the Cavaliers embrace it.
“I think it’s fun to win,” forward Akil Mitchell said. “I enjoy it.”
Pittsburgh also lost to Virginia by three points during the regular season.
“This conference has had so many close games, so you shouldn’t be surprised,” Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said.
Guard Malcolm Brogdon and forward Anthony Gill each had 10 points for Virginia.
Forward Talib Zanna and guard Lamar Patterson each scored 15 points for fifth-seeded Pittsburgh (25-9), which won its first two tournament games in its first year as an ACC member.
“We improved some during the last week,” Dixon said. “That’s the encouraging thing. We’re healthy and we’re playing our best basketball.”
Pittsburgh guard Josh Newkirk, who scored on a drive to trim the deficit to 47-44, misfired on a 3-point shot with a chance to tie the game at the 1:47 mark.
Brogdon cut into the lane for a layup before Patterson answered for Pittsburgh with 51 seconds to go.
Robinson’s steal and basket made it a 49-48 score with 10 seconds remaining and the Panthers used their last timeout.
Gill made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 8.5 seconds left before Pittsburgh’s last possession.
Anderson is often a spark for the Cavaliers. He was the topic of postgame discussion despite scoring only two points.
“He gives us so much energy,” Mitchell said.
Pittsburgh was limited to 36.7 percent shooting from the field.
Virginia attempted only 45 shots and seven free throws, so each trip down the court seemed important.
“You need to make plays on offense,” Bennett said. “You’re not going to break down Pitt quick, and hopefully you’re not going to break us down. … They got physical. It was obvious they weren’t going to give you anything easy. It was going to be a possession-by-possession game.”
Patterson hit two 3-point baskets in the first five minutes of the second half, preventing Virginia, which scored on five consecutive possessions, from pulling away.
But the Cavaliers finally stretched their lead, with Harris making a drive from the wing for a 43-36 edge.
Pittsburgh missed eight shots in a row from the field during a stretch of nearly six minutes in which the Panthers made only two free throws.
Yet when Patterson’s layup counted because of goaltending, the Panthers were within 45-42 with slightly more than four minutes left.
It was a struggle for both offenses for much of the game.
Harris missed his first four 3-point shots, then bagged a long ball, courtesy of a big bounce off the rim, for a 26-24 halftime lead. That was the only scoring in the last 2:20 of the half.
Zanna scored half of Pittsburgh’s first-half points. The offense rolled through him in the post at times, but he was
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