College basketball history is littered with Final Four teams that struggled in the NCAA tournament’s first round. Virginia hopes to join that group — Duke 1986, Syracuse ’87 and Kentucky 2011 are among the others — after Friday’s 71-56 victory over Gardner-Webb.
Sure, the Cavaliers led by double-digit margins for the final 11-plus minutes and by as many as 21 points. But as any witness will attest, Virginia in no way resembled a No. 1 regional seed and ACC regular-season champion in the first half.
What the Cavaliers instead resembled was the defenseless bunch that last season became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in the first round, by 20 points to UMBC.
With that burden, what must U.Va.’s players, coaches and fans have been thinking when Gardner-Webb led 30-16? How badly must their insides have been churning?
Did Virginia need adjustments or a collective dose of Pepto? That’s a pressure only the Cavaliers can understand.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” guard Ty Jerome said, “but for me I think it creeped in once, it creeped in twice, and then I just tuned it out and used it as fuel.”
How could it not? But the Cavaliers (30-3) are accustomed to comebacks on the road. They rallied from seven down in the final eight-plus minutes at North Carolina. They erased a 12-point, first-half deficit and prevailed at Louisville.
And make no mistake, Friday’s game at the University of South Carolina was a virtual road game for U.Va. Gardner-Webb’s Boiling Springs, N.C., campus is about a two-hour drive from Columbia, and the entire town seemed shoehorned into the arena for the Bulldogs’ first NCAA Division I tournament appearance.
Moreover, as Gardner-Webb (23-12), the Big South tournament champs and the league’s third-place team in the regular season, built its advantage, impartial spectators climbed aboard the bandwagon. The Cavaliers only egged them on.
Careless on offense, Virginia committed five consecutive turnovers during one unsightly first-half stretch. Most uncharacteristic: They defended poorly inside and out.
But Virginia drew within 36-30 at halftime on Kihei Clark’s 3-pointer, which Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett called “pivotal.”
“Halftime was super-calm,” Jerome said. “It was all about adjustments. … There was no rah-rah, no ‘don’t let this happen again.’ … We made it about basketball.”
Bennett: “Yes, we made some adjustments that I think helped the guys out there, but it was, ‘don’t you dare leave anything in this locker room.’ ”
The Cavaliers didn’t, opening the second half on a 25-5 binge.
Clark, reserve Braxton Key and ACC Defensive Player of the Year De’Andre Hunter ignited a defense that began switching ball screens and clogging passing lanes. Hunter scored a game-high 23 points, 17 after halftime, and Mamadi Diakite added 17 points, one shy of his career-high.
A projected NBA lottery pick, Hunter missed the UMBC setback with a broken wrist. His presence Friday, his ability to create offense virtually at will and to defend multiple positions, was invaluable.
“He’s the only guy on the team that has an (isolation) play called for him,” Jerome said of Hunter.
Gardner-Webb has no such talent, and the Bulldogs committed 12 of their 16 turnovers after intermission. Guard Jose Perez scored 19 points on the afternoon, but forward DJ Laster missed all five of his second-half shots and went scoreless after 10 first-half points.
Virginia advances to a second-round game Sunday against ninth-seeded Oklahoma. The Sooners dismantled Ole Miss from start to finish Friday, winning 95-68.
The Cavaliers approached similar efficiency Friday only after falling behind by two touchdowns.
“We had an author come and talk to us last year, Joshua Medcalf,” guard Kyle Guy said, “and one of the things he said always stuck with me, is be where your feet are. So some of those outside pressures that can creep into our minds (are) all external, and it comes from thinking too much about the future, too much about the past. So we just tried to be where our feet were.”
Jerome recalled the panic of halftime against UMBC, though that game was 21-all at intermission.
“That was one thing I remember,” he said, “not doing a good job keeping everyone calm. That’s what I pride myself on, too. Every timeout, it’s just a matter of keeping guys calm, keeping guys calm, but also keeping our edge. You’ve got to find a balance. You can’t come out (and say), ‘Everything’s going to be OK. Stay calm.’ Just trying to find the right balance of staying calm and keeping our edge.”
The Cavaliers will need their edge for the entire 40 minutes Sunday and beyond. No more first-half mulligans.