COLUMBIA, S.C. — No longer merely surviving, no longer trying to make amends for last year, Virginia slipped back into its powerhouse persona Sunday night. That meant stuffing Oklahoma with its pack-line defense, sharing the basketball and rocking an NCAA tournament game to sleep with deft and methodical brilliance.
Welcome back, Cavaliers. They had experienced enough excitement, enough of the unknown, in their past two tournament games against No. 16 seeds. This night wouldn’t include paralyzing nerves and anxiety over becoming history’s jester. Free of the first round, they reintroduced themselves as they should be known: legitimate national title contenders.
Virginia did it, as usual, by playing gnarly basketball. It’s a brand that you don’t fully appreciate until you peel back the layers and realize the thorough manner in which the Cavaliers took apart Oklahoma in a 63-51 victory at Colonial Life Arena.
To advance to the Sweet 16 for the third time in Coach Tony Bennett’s 10 seasons, top-seeded Virginia needed to cool down the ninth-seeded Sooners, who shot 57.6 percent and scored 95 points in a first-round blowout of Mississippi. With former star Trae Young in attendance Friday, Oklahoma dominated the paint in that game, went to the foul line at will and watched Christian James hit four three-pointers. The Sooners looked like a veteran team that had peaked just in time. In reality, they had ensured only that they would get Virginia at its most attentive. They exploited a favorable matchup against Mississippi, but the Cavaliers are the kind of defensive team that has given Oklahoma problems all season.
The 95-point surge belied the fact that Virginia defends more like Big 12 foes Texas Tech and Kansas State. While the schemes aren’t the same, the impact is similar. Texas Tech led the nation in defensive efficiency this season, according to stats maven Ken Pomeroy, and Kansas State ranked fifth. Virginia was third.
Oklahoma had lost all four games against those stingy Big 12 opponents and reached 60 points in only one. Like Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas State are slow-tempo teams that come to every game prepared to beat you one possession at a time. But the biggest difference among the three is that the Cavaliers are also an elite offensive squad. Only Gonzaga ranked ahead of Virginia in offensive efficiency, according to Pomeroy’s stats.
It all pointed to a Virginia-style beatdown — a low-scoring, a low-possession blowout that only seems close. The Cavaliers scored the first seven points, forcing Oklahoma Coach Lon Kruger to call a timeout within the first two minutes. The Sooners recovered and took a 13-9 lead, but the Cavaliers owned the rest of the night.
Oklahoma shot just 36.5 percent. Virginia outrebounded the Sooners by seven. The Sooners attempted just six free throws. The Cavaliers were at their best, playing physical without fouling, letting ball movement dictate their offense and frustrating the opponent for 40 minutes.
“I thought these guys really came to play,” Bennett said. “They played for each other defensively.”
Virginia did it without extraordinary performances from its star trio of De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. Guy struggled through a 2-for-15 shooting performance, and Hunter was 3 for 8. Jerome was solid in contributing 12 points. But junior forward Mamadi Diakite, who started over Jack Salt to match up better with Oklahoma’s center-less lineup, led the Cavaliers with 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. It was his second straight strong performance to start this tournament; he had 17 points and nine rebounds against Gardner-Webb in the first round.
It was a game for the role players. Jay Huff entered in the first half, nailed a three-pointer and drove to the basket for a thunderous dunk. Braxton Key made all four of his shots in a nine-point, nine-rebound performance that included a layup after a beautiful behind-the-back pass from Guy.
Their reward for finding themselves? A new adventure, actually.
You tend to forget that, for all this team has accomplished during the three years Guy, Jerome and Hunter have been in college, the Sweet 16 is fresh. Salt, who averaged 1.7 points as a redshirt freshman on the 2016 Elite Eight team, is the only player who has been this deep. It speaks to the difficulty of this tournament, to the opportunity lost a year ago in falling as the No. 1 overall seed to Maryland Baltimore County in the first round and to the perception that Bennett still has plenty to prove at Virginia.
“It means everything to me, honestly,” Jerome said. “Everyone is talking about a Final Four, but I’ve never been to a Sweet 16.”
Bennett now has a 12-8 NCAA tournament record in his career. He was 3-2 in two appearances at Washington State. He is 9-6 at Virginia. Overall, he has been to nine tournaments in 13 seasons, and this is Sweet 16 No. 4. It’s not bad, especially when measured against the consternation of those who are desperate to see his program reach the Final Four. It’s not fantastic, either. It’s just part of the journey.
Winning only creates pressure to win more. And Bennett just won his 250th game at Virginia. As a gift, here’s more pressure: He needs to go to Louisville on Thursday and win two more games to get to the Final Four. And after that, a national title will be the demand. The cycle keeps spinning.
But Virginia is built to stay the course. On some nights, it’s exasperating. On most nights, it’s endearing. Another opportunity has arrived, and win or lose, you know this team will be consistent in how it approaches it.
“I don’t think the joy necessarily grows because every time we step on the basketball court you have to understand how blessed you are to play the game you love,” Jerome said. “I think it’s just . . . 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.”
Gnarly basketball has returned. Virginia basketball has returned. After watching the Cavaliers languish through a couple of tournament games, it’s refreshing to see them do what they do best: Wear the game down. Detail by detail, possession by possession, it adds up to being impressive.