With tired eyes, through fatigue and disappointment, Bennett saw a silver lining in Virginia failing to reach the ACC tournament semifinals for the first time since 2013.
“We talked about it in the locker room after,” Bennett said. “We’ve got whatever little bit of time now. We recover. We rest. But we prepare as well as we can in practice and tighten up.”
Virginia (22-10) did just that before gathering Sunday to learn its fate in the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers earned the No. 5 seed in the East Region and will play No. 12 seed UNC Wilmington (29-5), the CAA champions, in Orlando on Thursday.
It marks Virginia’s fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, the first such streak for the program since 1981-84, and the first time it did not receive a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in four years.
The Cavaliers join eight other ACC programs in the NCAA tournament bracket, including No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 2 seeds Duke and Louisville.
The nine bids is a conference record for the ACC, which sent eight teams to the tournament in 2007, 2009 and last year.
In the days leading to their first-round matchup, the Cavaliers, more than anything, are focused on themselves.
A four-game winning streak that included one victory in the ACC tournament gave way to a disappointing 71-58 loss to Notre Dame on Thursday in which Virginia was off in almost every measure.
The defense, long considered the team’s strength, allowed the Fighting Irish to shoot 52.2 percent from the field while Virginia shot just 38.6 percent.
Those are things Virginia can work on in practice. But junior forward Isaiah Wilkins also pointed out that a mind-set made a difference for the Cavaliers — Notre Dame simply had more desire to win.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth,” Wilkins said. “At this time of the year . . . I know we played our game last night, but I think it’s just the hungrier team’s going to win the game.”
“Of course you have to execute,” Bennett said. “I’ve said it before — soft doesn’t work in March. We ran into a team playing at a very high level in Notre Dame. . . . They certainly were, it appeared, to be a bit hungrier. They wanted us.
“This is the NCAA tournament, and you want to be as ready as you can . . . you try to lock in, and enjoy it, and love the challenge, and be as ready as you can, and we’ve got some guys who have experience in these settings, so that will help. But we’ve got some new guys that we’ll see how they respond.”
In addition to last-minute tightening before facing UNC Wilmington, Virginia also is making recovery time a priority.
The Cavaliers went through the end of the regular season with myriad health issues, the worst of which fell on Wilkins.
He is Virginia’s best defender and vocal leader on court along with senior point guard London Perrantes. Multiple Cavaliers have played through strep throat since the end of February, but Wilkins hasn’t shaken his illness.
“He’s struggling with a bad virus or whatever this is,” Bennett said, after Wilkins had eight points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes against Notre Dame. “Maybe a blessing in disguise if he can get some more rest and recover. He is a big part of our energy and helping defensively, and he wasn’t right in terms.”
In the short few days between tournaments, Wilkins vowed to rest, force down some food to get his weight back and try to help the Cavaliers keep their focus.
“We’ve just tried to let Isaiah rest and we’ll just kind of progress and see how he’s feeling and go from there,” Bennett said. “Going down to Orlando for a Thursday game — at this time of year, everybody’s played a lot of games . . . it’s [about] preparing well now that we know who we’re playing.”
Thursday, 12:40 p.m., TruTV