ORLANDO — Sometimes the key moment in a basketball game isn’t easy to see. Sometimes it isn’t a shot or a turnover or even a questionable call.
On Thursday afternoon, with Virginia hanging on for dear life against UNC-Wilmington in a tense first-round game in the NCAA tournament’s East Region, the key moment came when Virginia’s longtime trainer Ethan Saliba, walked the length of the bench and said to Coach Tony Bennett, “London’s okay.”
Bennett felt his breathing relax. Thirty-two second earlier — in game time, but seemingly much longer in Bennett’s lifetime — Cavaliers point guard London Perrantes had left the game because of a stinger in his right arm.
“It felt like he was out for about 18 minutes,” Bennett said. “I’ll take a guess and say it was actually about two-and-a-half minutes.”
Virginia, leading 64-59 with 5:32 left in the game, already was playing without its other emotional leader, Isaiah Wilkins, who continues to recover from recovering from strep throat and flu. Every time the Seahawks had crept close to the Cavaliers, Perrantes had made a play. When Perrantes stayed on the floor, holding his arms straight down for about 30 seconds, Saliba went out to get him.
“I just couldn’t get the feeling back in my arm,” Perrantes said later. “I kept waiting for it to come back, but it didn’t. Then, after I got back to the bench, it started to come back.”
On Perrantes’s first possession back, he caught the ball at the top of the key and squared up against UNCW point guard Denzel Ingram, who had been his shadow for most of the afternoon. Perrantes pump-faked, drove left and floated a left-handed layup into the basket with one second left on the shot clock for a 66-59 lead.
After Chris Flemmings, who kept the Seahawks close down the stretch, made a drive of his own to cut the margin to 66-61, Perrantes threw a home-run pass on the inbounds to Darius Thompson, who was fouled going to the basket. He made one of two, and Bennett and the rest of the Cavaliers were able to breathe a little easier.
“I’ve watched him hit big shots for four years now,” Bennett said. “He’s just such a tough kid. That’s why I was so concerned when he had to come out. He doesn’t ever want to come out.”
UNCW cut the margin to 69-66 with 2:54 left during a stretch when the Cavaliers failed to get the ball to Perrantes for several possessions.
“I was a little concerned,” Bennett said. “Maybe [the elbow] was still bothering him. I finally started yelling at him to go get the ball. Fortunately, he did.”
Perrantes made another floating layup with the shot clock again winding down to extend the lead to 71-66 with 1:37 left. The Seahawks didn’t quit, but Virginia had just enough left in the tank to hang on and win, 76-71. Reserve Mariel Shayock, who scored 23 points, hit the shot that clinched the win with 25 seconds left — set up by a drive by Perrantes.
Perrantes finished with 24 points, three assists and, importantly, only one turnover against UNCW’s pressure defense.
“Perrantes is just that kind of player,” UNCW Coach Kevin Keatts said. “We knew going in that he was their go-to guy, and it’s easy to see why. He just made the plays they had to have. You know, we played well. That’s what I told the guys. I was proud of their effort. One play, two plays go the other way and we win. In the end, Perrantes just didn’t let that happen.”
Perrantes had talked Wednesday about being aware that his days as a college basketball player were dwindling. For a while, Thursday appeared it might be his last in a Virginia uniform.
The Seahawks, two-time CAA champions who played Duke to the wire in the first round a year ago, came out flying, seemingly making every shot. Bennett called time out with 8:30 left in the first half and his team down, 23-11. That’s when he made a snap decision.
Assistant coach Brad Soderberg, who had scouted UNCW, had suggested during practice earlier in the week that Bennett consider spending some time working with a five-guard lineup because the Seahawks are so quick and love to spread defenses out.
“I knew we were going to have to play four guards at times, especially with Isaiah an unknown,” Bennett said. “But when Brad suggested a few reps with five guards, I thought about it for a minute and said, ‘Nah.’”
With UNCW finding — and making — shots all over the court and Wilkins too sick to play, Bennett decided it was time.
The five guard lineup turned the game around. All of a sudden, UNCW’s shots were being contested. The Cavaliers were attacking whenever they got the chance, especially when they broke the press and were consistently getting good shots. Shayok, who said he was just trying to give his team some energy off the bench, scored 11 points, giving Virginia just the offensive boost it needed.
After a three-pointer by Ingram widened the lead to 26-11 coming out of Bennett’s time out, the five guards finished the half on a 19-3 run, giving Virginia an unlikely 30-29 lead.
“We expected a game of runs,” Perrantes said with a smile. “They had one early. I was thinking, ‘They can’t — hopefully — keep making every shot.’ Fortunately, they didn’t, and we starting making ours.”
Perrantes had five points at halftime, having taken just three shots. In the second half, he made 7 of 11 and also played a key role in holding Wilmington’s leading scorer, C.J. Bryce, to eight points on 2-for-8 shooting.
“That was a tough team,” Bennett said, shaking his head as he sat on press row scouting the Florida-East Tennessee State game. “We knew going in how tough they were and how difficult they were going to be to play against because of their quickness. They didn’t surprise us; they were just really good.”
As he spoke, Bennett was poking at a postgame salad, a meal that tasted a lot better thanks to the work of Perrantes.