Malcolm Brogdon saw it right away. How could he not? Virginia opened the game with six straight empty possessions. Its first 12 trips yielded just four points. Things weren't easy or fluid, not like they were on Saturday; right there, in the first five minutes, was proof that this game was going to be different.
Not that he wanted to believe it.
"You realize [a game might be different] early in the first half," Brodgon said. "And then you come to that realization again in the second half, when your shots still aren't falling."
Good shooters never think the next shot will miss. That's how Brogdon and the rest of the Virginia Cavaliers could enter Tuesday night's second half down 27-20, having scored .69 points per possession, still not completely convinced that the makes wouldn't come in the second half. They did, eventually: The back-to-back threes Brogdon and London Perrantes hit in the closing minute of overtime -- an overtime Cal had a chance to avert on the final possession of regulation -- erased a five-point deficit and gave the Cavaliers the decisive margin in their closest, ugliest, and most surprising win of the season.
Why surprising? For the same reasons Brogdon had his re-realization in the second half, the same reasons the Hoos could polish off a brutal, 63-points-in-62-trips OT heist of a win against an unranked team at home ... and, minutes later, still profess the utmost confidence in their offense. Because good shooters never think the next shot will miss.
"I feel like everybody's shooting the ball really well," Perrantes said. "We're all shooting it with confidence."
"You just keep shooting and trust that it's going to fall," Brogdon said.
This after a 14-of-42 performance from 2-point range, one that saw the robotically efficient Anthony Gill submit one of his least efficient outings (5-of-14) this season. This after a long, well-prepared, packed-in Cal defense erased the driving lanes and off-ball cuts Virginia exploited to brilliant effect against an apparently better Villanova team three days prior. This after Virginia's usual second-half onslaught never really came.
And you know what? They are right. Virginia shot 7-of-12 from three-point range Tuesday night, one make shy of their 8-for-12 performance Saturday, and the shots that did fall were the most important of the night. (One, at least, was also the most clever: Brogdon's three was the product of an elevator doors set Tony Bennett unveiled for the first time all season.)
They also have a plenty of data on which to rest their argument. Virginia entered Saturday night with the nation's most efficient offense, adjusted for competition -- not to mention the three months the Cavaliers spent last season, prior to guard Justin Anderson's injury, winning as much with efficient scoring as with elite pack-line defense. Perrantes -- who shot 31.6 percent from three last season -- is now 19-of-33 from three this season, the ninth-best percentage (57.6) in college basketball.
The last time he shot it this well?
"High school," Perrantes said.
So, sure, though Virginia grinding out a close 62-possession game on its own court doesn't feel surprising, at least not superficially, it is. This team is still a different beast, for better and for worse, than its superficial rep implies.
"I think our defense is good," Brogdon said. "I think our defense has -- our defense has been better at this point in the last couple of seasons. But our offense is better than it was. It's a Catch-22: The offense is better, but the defense isn't as good. We're still winning games with our defense. We're getting stops at the end of the games. But it has to just continue to get better."
Will the NCAA's new rules and officiating emphases hold up in conference play? Coordinator of officials J.D. Collins told ESPN's Jeff Goodman he is "cautiously optimistic" -- and unafraid to banish officials who slip under the rigors of league competition.
The No. 1-ranked Michigan State Spartans' win against Oakland on Tuesday night -- its first game without injured Wooden Award front-runner Denzel Valentine -- wasn't merely a nervy overtime win for a team missing its do-everything offensive star. It was also, as Myron Medcalf wrote, a good example of how this season, more than any time in recent memory, the nation's best teams are never totally safe.
No. 6 Xavier likewise remained a member of an increasingly exclusive club Tuesday night, topping Wake Forest 78-70 in the Skip Prosser Classic. That sounds like a pretty straightforward win, right? It was not: "After playing their worst first half of the season, trailing by as many as 18 points and heading to the locker room with a deficit, the Musketeers executed a wild comeback and staved off a late Demon Deacons rally. 'I love this area,' said Xavier coach Chris Mack, a former Demon Deacons assistant. 'But after the first half I was considering never coming back.'"
Florida sophomore Zach Hodskins was born without the lower half of his left arm. He's a Division I college basketball player. In fact, Hodskins is a D-I player for a program that, prior to last season, had played in the Elite Eight in four straight seasons. It's been two years since Hodskins first earned an offer to walk-on in Gainesville, Florida. At the time, sure, "Prep hoops star with one hand!" was the obvious feel-good headline. To us, though, Hodskins was inspiring not just because he was playing basketball but because he'd figured out how to play so well. Those clips were the first thing we thought of when Hodskins put a lightning dribble-spin move on a Jacksonville defender Tuesday night, en route to the first points of his collegiate career. It was the best thing Scott Van Pelt saw all day. Us, too.
"The pie tastes better when you win before Christmas." Hear hear, Coach Self, and here's to you, dear reader, wishing you a happy holiday season filled with the well-deserved spoils of a successful 2015. Including, but not limited to, pie.