For 20 minutes, the nerves were crippling. Recent history was overbearing. The Virginia Cavaliers, with Retriever-shaped clouds hanging overhead, were disintegrating again.
One year after they became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a 16, the unimaginable was recurring. This time, the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs were sprinting. Virginia was stumbling, and that unique feeling from March 16, 2018 – the impending doom, simultaneously impossible and inevitable – was flooding back.
But this time, Virginia recovered to extinguish it. For the first time in four NCAA tournament halves, it played like one of the best teams in college basketball – which it is. It devoured a 14-point deficit to win 71-56, and ensured there would be no UMBC repeat.
But those 20 minutes? Just like last year’s 40, they were unforgettable. Because the prospect of the unprecedented suddenly becoming commonplace was too enthralling to ignore.
Virginia’s early struggles
At the first three TV timeouts of what many assumed would be a stroll, the Cavs trailed 6-4, 17-10 and 26-14. Minutes after the third, Gardner-Webb extended its stunning advantage to 28-14, then to 30-16. Around the country, TV sets flickered on, spreadsheets on work computers became live streams, America’s attention drawn to the unspeakable.
Tony Bennett’s team looked shaky. Hesitant. Uncharacteristically nervous. Perhaps it really was. Perhaps we, the stunned viewer, projected our own nerves upon Virginia players. Either way, they turned the ball over on five consecutive early possessions.
At the other end, Gardner-Webb was hot. Its threes were falling – four of the nine taken, to be exact. Its 36 first-half points were the second-most Virginia has given up in a half all season. The Runnin’ Bulldogs – yes, that’s their real nickname – slipped a few high ball screens, taking advantage of Virginia’s hard hedges.
But Virginia bookended halftime with its comeback. The top seed cut the deficit to 36-30 by the break. Less than five minutes into the second half, it claimed its first lead. It outscored the pesky Big South champs 12-2, 22-5 and 32-9 over various second-half timespans, and led 62-48 at the under-eight TV timeout.
Mamadi Diakite and DeAndre Hunter were the catalysts for Virginia early in the second. Diakite missed two free throws and a couple bunnies right out of halftime, but the Cavs kept going to him. He scored twice around the rim.
Hunter – who did not play in last year’s UMBC debacle due to injury – followed Diakite to cut Gardner-Webb’s edge to two, then put the Cavs in the lead with a three-point play. Ty Jerome’s 3-pointer completed the 12-2 spurt.
Virginia began to exert its physical superiority, getting to the paint and crashing the offensive boards. Its threes still weren’t falling. A 41-percent long-range shooting team hit just three of its first 15 attempts from beyond the arc.
But a Hunter triple, the team’s fourth of the afternoon, extended Virginia’s advantage to double-digits. At the other end, the Cavs locked down on defense, turning the Runnin’ Bulldogs over nine times in the first nine minutes of the second period. Another Jerome 3-pointer, this one from the parking lot with under eight minutes to play, squashed the upset bid for good.
With the proverbial monkey off its back, Virginia will move on to play Oklahoma. And for all of Friday’s fretting, it will still be a heavy favorite. It is still the most consistent program in college basketball over the past six seasons. And it is still a national title contender.
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