RALEIGH, N.C. — There was a growing sense history might be made, and Virginia was nowhere to be found as halftime neared its end.
Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett had spent much of his time in the locker room watching in dismay as his once-unflappable team bickered among themselves after a sloppy 20 minutes that, if replicated in the second half, would have ended what had been a remarkable season.
Whatever he said in that moment worked, and as the clock struck midnight, another Cinderella had finally been discarded.
No. 1 seed Virginia survived a scare Friday night, pulling away from No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina to score a 70-59 victory in an East Region round-of-64 matchup that featured more drama than anybody expected. The Cavaliers, who won a game in the NCAA tournament for just the second time since 1995, will face No. 8 seed Memphis on Sunday at 8:40 p.m. with a chance to go to the Sweet 16.
Forward Anthony Gill, who started the second half after coming off the bench to begin the contest, led the way with 17 points and five rebounds. Guard Malcolm Brogdon chipped in 14 points and five assists, while freshman London Perrantes added 12 points and six assists.
But there was nothing routine about this latest victory, not after Virginia had to overcome the sort of sloppy performance that had been rare when the program captured the ACC’s regular season and tournament championship for the first time. And as has been the case throughout Coach Tony Bennett’s five years in Charlottesville, the tenor of this contest changed on the defensive end.
Simply put: Virginia, the nation’s leader in scoring defense this season, started playing some.
Down 35-30 at halftime, the Cavaliers began the second half hounding Coastal Carolina all over the court, and the Chanticleers missed nine of their first 11 shots after shooting 52 percent in the first half. Before four minutes elapsed, Virginia had swatted several Coastal Carolina shots, gone on a 10-0 run and regained the lead.
The Chanticleers, who won the Big South Conference this season, were not quite ready to fade away. A three-pointer by guard Elijah Wilson tied the score at 47 with less than nine minutes to play, and nobody would have blamed Virginia fans if they began having Chaminade flashbacks.
In 1982, the Ralph Sampson-led Cavaliers suffered what some consider the most shocking upset of all time to Chaminade in the Maui Invitational. Friday night would have surpassed that. A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, although Bennett admitted he feared “we were going to maybe be the poster child for that.”
“You could kind of feel the energy in the building when the fans were watching. They’re expecting you to come out and just jump on these guys,” senior Joe Harris said. “We might not have been feeling like that, but when the energy in the building is feeling like that, it kind of feeds off on to everyone else. There might have been a sense or worry and panic in our fans and everybody else, and maybe that translated a little more over to the guys on the floor just because that’s human nature.”
But forward Evan Nolte, seldom used down the stretch this season, gave the Cavaliers some breathing room, hitting two three-pointers and scoring eight points in span of a little more than three minutes to provide Virginia with an eight-point cushion it wouldn’t relinquish.
Coastal Carolina shot just 32 percent from the floor in the second half.
“It just opened the floodgates, and the rim got a lot bigger,” forward Akil Mitchell said of Nolte.
The night began with Virginia playing a brand of basketball that looked little like the methodical formula that worked so well this season and throughout the Bennett era. The Cavaliers went up-and-down the floor with Coastal Carolina and suffered through numerous defensive breakdowns.
And with each basket, the Chanticleers seemed to gain more confidence. Coastal Carolina, making just its third appearance in the NCAA tournament, hit five of its first eight three-pointers and led by 10 before halftime.
Virginia, to the surprise of the entire country, suddenly had a serious challenge on its hands when Bennett found his players arguing amongst themselves at halftime. He wondered aloud how, after being unified and unselfish had become their strength, these Cavaliers would “start fracturing” now.
“You could feel the guys: ‘Come on. What’s wrong? We shouldn’t be in this spot.’ ” Bennett said. “I said, ‘You have to come together in a way that you haven’t all year, because of what’s at stake.’ I said: ‘They’re capable of beating you. . . . Stop being afraid.’ ”