ORLANDO — Virginia guard London Perrantes was practically begging to get back into Thursday’s NCAA tournament game against UNC Wilmington, which he had left with just more than five minutes remaining after being shaken up in a scrum for a loose ball. This could’ve easily been Perrantes’s final college game, so he sacrificed his body whenever he could — including in this moment, when he clutched his elbow a few times before getting the green light to go back in.
By the time Perrantes returned, he wouldn’t be denied in a 76-71 win over the feisty Seahawks in an first-round East Region game at Amway Center. He put his team up seven with a hard drive to the basket with 4:31 remaining. He put his team up five with another left-handed scoop with just 1:37 left. And as the relentless Seahawks refused to go away, cutting the lead to two twice within the final 79 seconds, Perrantes showed the kind of veteran presence this young team so badly needed on the NCAA tournament stage.
“It was kind of like a stinger. It kind of just went through my whole arm. I couldn’t really feel it,” Perrantes said. “There was no way I was about to sit out the last five minutes, in my last tournament for sure. Even if I couldn’t feel my arm, I was going to try and go out there and do something.”
The senior guard finished with 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting, helping the Cavaliers (23-10) erase a 15-point first-half deficit against a high-octane opponent. On a day when UNC Wilmington shot a respectable 41 percent from the field and out-rebounded Virginia 40-33, the Cavaliers rode the leadership of Perrantes and the bench production of forward Marial Shayok, who finished with 23 points on 8-for-14 shooting.
Flemmings led the Seahawks (29-6) with 18 points and Denzel Ingram had 17. Sophomore forward Devontae Cacok added 12 points, a game-high 15 rebounds and, in making 5 of 6 shots, broke a 36-year-old NCAA record by shooting 80 percent from the field for the season.
Virginia will face the winner between Florida and East Tennessee State in the second round on Saturday, but only through the hard labor it put in on Thursday. After Wilmington cut its deficit to 71-69 with 1:16 remaining on a three-pointer by guard Chris Flemmings, Perrantes threw a gutsy baseball pass the length of the court to forward Darius Thompson, which led to a pair of crucial free throws. And after the Seahawks pulled within two again and were shadowing Perrantes’s every move on the ensuing possession, it was Shayok who gave his team a 75-71 lead with a jumper with 25 seconds remaining.
It was only fitting that Virginia escaped with a defensive stop on the following possession, forcing just its ninth turnover of the day to seal the victory.
It appeared early on that Virginia and its vaunted defense, which entered the day holding opponents to a national-best 55.6 points per game, would be run off the floor. This was a chippy matchup at times — freshman Kyle Guy took an inadvertent shot to the face on a drive by Wilmington guard Ambrose Mosley on the first drive of the game to set the tone — and Mosley followed by making his first four shots of the game.
That helped spot the Seahawks a 15-point lead early, and so did a Virginia offense that looked groggy and discombobulated. The Cavaliers embarked on a scoring drought of over more than minutes at one point in the first half. Guy looked out of sorts. Perrantes, the unquestioned leader of this fresh-faced group, missed a wide-open three-pointer. There were ill-advised shots and turnovers, including a baffling three-second violation.
But while Virginia eventually found a way to tighten the screws defensively late in the first half, it also fell into more of an offensive rhythm by spacing the floor and moving the ball at a faster clip with a five-guard lineup. A three-pointer from Perrantes with 7:01 remaining cut the deficit to 12 and began a 19-3 Cavaliers run to end the half. The Seahawks missed their final nine shots of the first half, and Virginia took control in the second half behind a guard-oriented lineup that Virginia Coach Tony Bennett had devised in response to UNC Wilmington’s full-court defensive pressure throughout the afternoon.
“That was kind of a shock, because we’ve never done that. We’ve gone four guards, not five. But obviously knows what he’s doing,” said Guy, who finished with five points.
Perrantes gave his team a 61-51 lead with a three-pointer with just over seven minutes remaining, but it wasn’t until he came back into the game after being shaken up that he helped pull Virginia over the top in the final four minutes. That included his left-handed layup with just 97 seconds remaining that made it a two-score game.
“I didn’t think it was going in, one, because my arm was hurting pretty bad. I had no idea,” Perrantes said. “That was the only shot I could get off.”