COLUMBIA, S.C. — From relief to bravado to exhilaration, players on top-seeded Virginia encountered a gamut of emotions during the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.
First, in a 71-56 win over No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb on Friday, the Cavaliers took a step toward putting to rest, at least for the immediate future, discussion of their historic loss last season to Maryland Baltimore County, the first time a No. 1 seed lost to a 16.
Then Sunday night, Virginia got its swagger back in a 63-51 victory over No. 9 seed Oklahoma, limiting the high-octane Sooners to 36.5 percent shooting to reach the round of 16 for the third time under Coach Tony Bennett.
Given the heartbreak of last season, the Cavaliers (31-3) made sure to soak it all in before departing Colonial Life Arena and beginning to prepare for No. 12 seed Oregon (25-12) in the South Region semifinals in Louisville.
“Every time we step onto the basketball court, you have to understand how blessed you are to play the game you love,” junior point guard Ty Jerome said. “Another week, more opportunity to play with the teammates you love, for the coaches you love and for the fans you love.
“But we’re nowhere near relaxed, nowhere near satisfied. We’re not even close to our end goal.”
That, of course, is Minneapolis, site of the Final Four in two weeks.
There’s much work to be done before that. Virginia has two days of practice back in Charlottesville before leaving for Louisville, where the Cavaliers are set to play in Thursday’s late game, tipping off at approximately 10 p.m. in the KFC Yum! Center.
“Only the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff who were part of last year’s team and this year’s team can truly appreciate and understand,” Bennett said. “You know, we tried to get back to this spot. Even to be a No. 1 seed and then to have to [get] into the situation and be down [to Gardner-Webb], definitely pressure.
“So that was real. You could feel it.”
Virginia found its stride in the second half against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, particularly sophomore De’Andre Hunter, who scored 17 of his game-high 23 points after halftime. His three-point play with 16:16 left in the second half put the Cavaliers ahead to stay at 39-38.
Jerome also emerged from the first weekend re-energized offensively after a disappointing run through the ACC tournament.
He shot 10 for 20 to score 25 points in Virginia’s first two NCAA games, including 4 for 9 from three-point range. Jerome appeared far more comfortable shooting at the baskets in Colonial Life Arena than in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, where he was 5 for 24 in two conference tournament games.
"Ty and all the guys did the job,” Bennett said. “But I think they were playing for each other defensively and sharing the ball and just trying to, you know, get into these possession games, trying to impose your will or outlast [the opponent], and that was part of it.”
Perhaps most encouraging heading into Virginia’s 10th appearance in the region semifinals have been the contributions of forward-center Mamadi Diakite. The junior totaled 31 points and 18 rebounds in the wins over Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma.
That’s the most points and rebounds in any two-game stretch of his career. So impressed with Diakite’s performance in the round of 64 was Bennett that he elected to start him Sunday. The decision paid off: Diakite scored a team-high 14 points.
His offensive output came on a night when Kyle Guy went 0-for-10 from three-point range and Hunter was saddled with foul trouble before fouling out in the closing minutes with 10 points.
That the Cavaliers still were able to beat Oklahoma, which had scored 95 points in its first-round win against Mississippi, by double digits underscored the many ways in which Virginia can win, even with its two top scorers struggling.
“We try to enjoy every step that we have, but again, the job is not done yet,” Diakite said. “We’ve got more games to go, more preparations, and we have to know what teams have [in store] for us. In order to get to the next phase, we need to prepare ourselves.”