Virginia, unfazed by pressure, holds off Oregon in tense Sweet 16 slog

Yahoo Sports

It was tense. It was nerve-wracking. It was brutal. In so many senses, it was classic Virginia basketball. And in the NCAA tournament in recent years, that hasn’t been a good thing.

But on Thursday night, in true Virginia fashion, the Cavaliers persevered. They fought off those nerves, that tension. “It wasn’t a masterpiece,” head coach Tony Bennett admitted afterward.

“But as the saying goes,” Bennett said, “survive and advance.”

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Virginia beat 12th-seeded Oregon, 53-49, in a South regional semifinal that was anything but pretty and anything but simple. It was a Sweet 16 slog of the highest order, with one made basket by either team between the 5:21 and 0:27 marks of the second half. But it was nonetheless impressive – in a uniquely Virginia way.

Virginia's Ty Jerome, right, drives against Oregon's Francis Okoro (33) during the second half of a men's NCAA Tournament college basketball South Regional semifinal game, Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Virginia's Ty Jerome, right, drives against Oregon's Francis Okoro (33) during the second half of a men's NCAA Tournament college basketball South Regional semifinal game, Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Virginia stays calm amid inescapable tension

It was impressive because Virginia responded to every ounce of doubt the game threw at it. The 2018-19 Cavaliers were supposed to be operating in the shadow of the most embarrassing loss in college basketball history. They were supposed to be haunted by that UMBC upset. Crushed by the pressure still stemming from it.

But they never have been. They put together an understated yet dominant regular season. They never fretted when behind by 14 to a No. 16 seed again last week. They dispatched Oklahoma in the Round of 32.

On Thursday, when Oregon sent external anxiety spiking through roofs, the five players on the court withstood it. They responded with patience, and without panic. They played their game, and prevailed.

They opened Thursday’s contest with 10 points in 14 minutes. They responded with 20 in six to take a 30-22 halftime lead.

Kyle Guy misfired on his first five 3-pointers, extending his NCAA tournament miss streak to 17. But he responded; he kept shooting, and drilled two key triples in the second half.

And when Oregon made its run? When Virginia couldn’t buy a bucket? When the Ducks took a three-point lead with under six minutes to play? Kihei Clark splashed a 3. The Cavs strung together crucial stop after crucial stop. Ty Jerome hit a go-ahead triple that turned out to be the dagger.

And when Oregon trapped relentlessly in the final minute? Guy stayed calm, and found De’Andre Hunter for a lead-extending layup. The Cavs, without fail, got the ball inbounded and kept hold of it. Hunter buried his free throws. And the crushing weight of failures past was relieved for 48 hours.

Virginia wins despite offensive struggles

The Ducks bothered the top-seeded Cavs all night with their length and stifling defense. They hit timely shots. They were every bit of the challenge Bennett expected. And had one or two more of their jump shots fallen in crunch time, they might have been too much of one.

Because the Cavalier offense wasn’t just customarily slow, it was unusually inefficient. Or, if you prefer the more blunt term: It was bad. It cobbled together only 18 second-half points before the Duck defense went into desperation mode. Bennett barely played his bench, and got a goose egg from his reserves. Aside from a machine-like end to the first period, replete with robotic decision-making and crisp passing, the Cavs were laborious on the offensive end.

But Virginia put together more than five minutes of defensive perfection late to emerge unscathed. Oregon didn’t score a single point between the 5:43 mark and 0:17 mark of the second half.

That’s why the Cavaliers are moving on, to the Elite Eight, to the doorstep of that elusive Final Four under Bennett. They’ll get a hot Purdue team on Saturday. But if there’s one certainty about that game, it’s that in the face of Boilermaker heat, Virginia will remain cool.

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