COLUMBIA, S.C. — Ty Jerome remembered halftime this time last year, when No. 1 seed Virginia went into halftime tied with No. 16 UMBC. An assistant coach came into the locker room screaming at the Cavs, and Jerome said the team could “feel their panic.” We know how that ended.
So the top-seeded Cavaliers entered the locker room on Friday at Colonial Life Arena down 36–30 to 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb, and head coach Tony Bennett has had more than a year to stew on what turned his top-seeded team into a trivia question for decades to come. He wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again.
“It was one thing I said to my staff, and we just talked right before we went in there. I said, ‘Uplift them,’ and we talked about don’t panic, but play with fight,” Bennett said.
“Don’t you dare leave anything in this locker room. Don’t panic, but you play the right way with a—I don’t know if calm’s the right word—but I though they did that with the fight.”
Crisis averted. Virginia did what every other one seed in NCAA tournament history has done, topping the Runnin’ Bulldogs 71–56 to finally exorcise the demons from last year. And a big difference this year in getting over the first-round hump came in the form of De’Andre Hunter, who scored a game-high 23 points after missing the UMBC game last season with a broken wrist.
But for the first 20 minutes of the game, there was a strong Is this happening again? vibe in the arena. Gardner-Webb, a two-hour trip up the road, traveled well to Columbia, and then every non-Virginia fan in the building seemed to hop on board with each GWU bucket. The Cavs turned the ball over five times in the first 5:30 of the game, while the Runnin’ Bulldogs owned the paint in the first half despite being out-sized at almost every spot on the floor.
The lead got to 14 with seven minutes left in the first half, and Bennett admitted it felt like a road game for the top-seeded squad. As Bennett and his staff tried to keep the team calm, Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft kept finding gold out of every timeout with his play calls. Here’s what Craft’s team did out of every first-half timeout: turnover, made three-pointer, defensive block, made jumper, made three-pointer, missed three-pointer.
But Virginia cut the deficit to six in the closing minutes of the first frame. Then Bennett made some deft adjustments that would help the Cavaliers run away in the second half. The ’Hoos started switching on guard Jose Perez’s pick-and-rolls, so the three-point looks he got in the first half went away. Then they started doubling in the post, both when Perez would draw the shorter Kihei Clark and when D.J. Laster would get on the block.
And finally, Virginia remembered it was bigger, stronger and longer than Gardner-Webb. 6'9" forward Mamadi Diakite, who looked more or less lost in the first half, convinced himself of his height with 13 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the second half. As Virginia asserted itself in the paint, Hunter was able to feast inside and out.
“I was just trying to score in the flow of the offense,” Hunter said. “I didn’t really try to play outside of it. I just tried to be aggressive when my team needed me.”
Perhaps the best three-and-D player in the country and a sure lottery pick in the NBA draft, Hunter had a pedestrian six points in the first half. He found his rhythm in the second half, going 6-for-9 in the period with 17 points, including two three-pointers he had been longing to see fall after going 0-for-4 in the ACC tournament semifinal loss to Florida State.
“It was difficult for everybody in the ACC this year for the most part, so it was going to be a difficult challenge for us,” said Craft, whose Big South squad wouldn’t have an answer for a player of Hunter’s size and caliber on a good day. “I thought they made some good adjustments both offensively and defensively to exploit some areas that in the beginning of the first half they weren’t.
“I did think that they made some good adjustments to get it to a spot that’s hard for us to guard and Hunter, yeah, he’s a monster for us to guard and most of the country.”
Hunter will be the key for Virginia going forward. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome will have the veteran savvy for this group, but Hunter is far and away the team’s best player. Hunter’s the best defender in the ACC and the main reason the two regular-season losses to Duke were competitive.
Virginia can now turn its attention to an Oklahoma team that blew the doors off Mississippi, 95–72, on Friday. But the monkey is finally off Virginia’s back, even though Gardner-Webb did all it could to make Virginia an eternal college basketball punchline.
“That will always be part of our story. I understand that. I’m sure a lot of people thought it was going to be part of our story the second year in a row,” Bennett said. “But it’s just now, this is a new year.
“But I think it was important for those guys, a lot of them were hoping to be in this position again, and they stepped to the challenge—even though it was a little wobbly at times.”