COLUMBIA, S.C. — After watching Virginia play another dismal half against a No. 16 seed, Tony Bennett stopped before entering the locker room. The coach huddled with his assistants, discussed a few game details and dismissed them with a strong demand about how to handle the woozy players.
To avoid a repeat NCAA tournament apocalypse, to avoid deja boo, to avoid eternal damnation as a fraudulent No. 1 seed and reclaim some dignity with a 71-56 victory over Gardner-Webb on Friday, Bennett wanted composure, extraordinary composure, something beyond even Virginia’s normal level of nerveless basketball. It was the coaches’ chance to show their maturation.
At halftime of the infamous loss to Maryland Baltimore County last season, Cavaliers guard Ty Jerome recalled an assistant barging in and “screaming at us.” The score was tied, but “we felt their panic,” Jerome said. So the Cavaliers choked, ended up losing by 20 and went down in history as the first No. 1 to lose to a No. 16 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
A year wiser, a year hardened from wearing that epic failure every day, they knew how not to act, if nothing else. They respected, and perhaps feared, the difficulty of having to be Goliath without the aura. Down 36-30 to Gardner-Webb after 20 minutes, the team needed to be charged, not shamed.
“Don’t panic, but play with fight,” Bennett told his players.
A little more than an hour later, Virginia — calamity’s favorite No. 1 seed — slapped hands, hugged, smiled and breathed, long and deep. The Cavaliers survived themselves, and then they beat Gardner-Webb the way a top seed should.
It wasn’t a performance worthy of praise, but at least the NCAA tournament stopped throwing tomatoes at the Cavaliers. At least they live to play Oklahoma on Sunday in the second round. At least the dream of making the Final Four — which would quiet the program’s harshest critics — still exists.
After losing everything last year, after being fully disrobed, a non-loss felt quite satisfying to the Cavaliers. Now, they can relax and play to win.
“It was just intense,” Bennett said. “That’s the reality of it.”
If ever forced to recover from historic humiliation, some advice: Don’t try the Virginia method. Don’t commit six turnovers in the game’s first nine minutes. Don’t fall behind 30-16 and trail for more than 16 minutes of the first half. Don’t allow the opponent to get hot and comfortable, don’t allow the Colonial Life Arena crowd to get underdog-crazy, and don’t play so poorly that members of basketball royalty start shaking their heads.
Midway through the first half, with the Cavaliers already trailing by double figures, Virginia legend Ralph Sampson sat in the stands with his hands on his head. On press row, former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. looked at CBS analysts Bill Raferty and Grant Hill and pointed his index finger at his head. The minds of the Virginia players were still stuck on March 16, 2018. For all their openness about how they got over that 74-54 loss to UMBC, they hadn’t moved past the defeat.
They talked about owning it, but in the first half, that only meant they bought into it. They needed to compete against the humiliation, not try to pacify it.
“Every timeout, it was just a matter of keeping guys calm but also keeping our edge,” said Jerome, who finished with 13 points. “You’ve got to find a balance. You can’t come out like: ‘Everything’s going to be okay. Stay calm.’ It’s just trying to find the right balance.”
Virginia found that balance by turning to its best player, De’Andre Hunter, who missed last season’s NCAA tournament with a broken wrist. For all of his accomplishments, the sophomore was playing in his first tournament game, and he made the most of the experience by scoring 23 points, grabbing six rebounds, blocking two shots and helping his team neutralize the Bulldogs’ quickness with his versatile skill set.
The comeback also required 17 points and nine rebounds off the bench from junior Mamadi Diakite, whose early second-half buckets stabilized the offense. And then 5-foot-9 freshman Kihei Clark influenced the game in his trademark way, swiping three steals and racing to every loose ball. He even made a three-pointer. It was the most high-impact three-point, four-assist, five-rebound game that you’ll witness.
The combination of talent, effort and poise — “Don’t panic, but play with fight” — allowed Virginia to go on a 22-5 run out of halftime, lead by as much as 21 and dismiss the notion that it can’t handle being a No. 1 seed.
“They punched us in the mouth,” Jerome said, “but we just said we’ve been in that position before.”
There isn’t much good about being considered a fraud, but the experience did help Virginia prevent another major upset.
“That will always be part of our story,” Bennett said. “I understand that. I’m sure a lot of people thought it was going to be a part of our story for the second year in a row, but this is a new year.”
Over two NCAA tournament first-round games, the Cavaliers have played four halves against No. 16 seeds. The first half against UMBC ended with the score tied at 21. Then, in the second half against the Retrievers last year and the first half against the Bulldogs on Friday, the No. 1 seed was outscored by a whopping 89-63. Finally, with history taunting the Cavaliers again, they broke free in the second half and restored order to their seeding. They outscored Gardner-Webb 41-20, and they pulled their starters with about two minutes remaining.
They learned how to play with fight, not trepidation, in the NCAA tournament. The road could get easier now. But don’t tell Bennett.
“Did you watch Oklahoma play?” he asked, alluding to the 95 points the Sooners put up while demolishing Mississippi.
Okay, never mind easier. But how about normal?
The college basketball world isn’t laughing at Virginia anymore. It isn’t expecting the worst. On Friday afternoon, after coming frighteningly close to another unfathomable setback, that was an uplifting sentiment.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.