ORLANDO — Virginia Coach Tony Bennett made one of his boldest decisions of the season in Thursday’s 76-71 NCAA tournament win over UNC Wilmington, choosing to go to a five-guard lineup after his team fell into a 15-point hole early in the first half. It was the first time this season that Bennett had unveiled such an extreme brand of small-ball, and it called for 6-foot-5 junior Marial Shayok to come off the bench and serve as the anchor.
Matched up against UNC Wilmington’s best athlete, 6-foot-7 forward Devontae Cacok, Shayok had to first master his ball-screen defense. “And then they switched, and he was working hard,” Bennett said. “Then we got the mismatch on the offensive end.”
The Seahawks were never quite sure how to handle to offensive skill-set of the crafty Shayok, who finished with a career-high 23 points to help lift his team into Saturday’s East Region second-round matchup against fourth-seeded Florida, which defeated No. 13 seed East Tennessee State, 80-65, on Thursday.
Shayok proved adept at scoring at all three levels. He slashed to the rim. He created his own pullup, midrange jumper off the dribble. He even hit three of his five attempts from three-point range, where he had shot just 2 for 12 in his previous 12 games. As he walked off the floor, he embraced Bennett and told him: “Chop wood, carry water,” a mantra Shayok adopted from a book he recently read by the same title.
“Which basically means stay faithful to the process. Stay faithful to the little things. Don’t get so consumed with that you’re seeing as the end result,” Bennett said. “That’s a mature statement for a third year in college.”
Shayok has certainly remained faithful to Bennett’s vision, which has often required the junior to sit on the bench throughout his career in Charlottesville. Before Thursday, when he played 30 minutes in Bennett’s experimental lineup, he had averaged just 10.2 minutes in his previous five games. Shayok is averaging 9.0 points and 2.4 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game this season.
“Just trying to do what I can to provide a spark if we need it,” said Shayok, and the Cavaliers certainly did after a sluggish start on Thursday. They were saved not only by Bennett’s adjustment, but also because of the heroics of senior guard London Perrantes, who shrugged off a stinger in his left arm and scored 24 points to become the first player in school history to win an NCAA tournament game in each of his four seasons.
But Shayok, who hadn’t started a game since Feb. 25 against North Carolina State, bailed Virginia out in a number of situations, including with a fadeaway jumper off the glass with 25 seconds left, which gave his team a four-point lead. Shayok took just as many shots as Perrantes — his 14 attempts tied a season-high — and he hit eight of those field goals.
He also hit all four of his free throws and committed just one turnover. It remains to be seen what his role will be against Florida, although Virginia isn’t likely to roll with a five-guard lineup on Saturday. The Gators are long and athletic, with a starting frontcourt that includes 6-foot-8 forwards Justin Leon and Devin Robinson and 6-9 center Kevarrius Hayes. That trio is accounting for 24.2 points and 14.2 rebounds per game. Perrantes predicted that Virginia would use every player at its disposal. Shayok vowed to again be ready.
“Whatever it is, by scoring or trying to lock down somebody,” Shayok said, “just trying to do what I can to provide on both ends.”