ORLANDO, Fla. – Virginia committing turnovers. North Carolina Wilmington cooking from 3-point land. Isaiah Wilkins unsuccessfully trying to play. Fouls mounting.
No, the start of the 2017 NCAA Tournament didn’t go as planned. So UVA threw out the plans.
“I teased our guys, I’m glad we worked on our five-guard lineup all week in practice,” Cavalier coach Tony Bennett said. “We knew we were going to have to play four guards, and we did talk about it as a staff, and Coach [Brad] Soderberg led the scout our last practice and said, ‘Do you want to get a few reps with five guards?’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ But we had to. And then these guys came up and made big plays.”
The bold strategy move righted the ship and the Hoos went from sinking to steaming into the next round as a result. They erased a 26-11 deficit to lead by halftime and then pulled out a 76-71 win against the Seahawks in the East Region’s 5-12 matchup. Virginia has won a March Madness game in each of its four straight tourney appearances.
Extending the stay this year took the quick and decisive move. UNCW’s Ambrose Mosley hit his third 3 of the game at the 8:33 mark to force a timeout by the Cavaliers. They emerged from that huddle with five guards as London Perrantes, Devon Hall, Darius Thompson, Marial Shayok, and Kyle Guy took the floor down 23-11.
It didn’t pay immediate dividends – Hall committed the team’s fifth turnover moments later and Denzel Ingram hit a contested 3-pointer to extend the lead at the 7:25 mark – but once the Hoos settled in with the strategy shift, they rallied. They scored on the next trip and the defense simultaneously started to tighten.
After committing 5 turnovers in the first 12:04, the Hoos had only 3 more the rest of the way. The Seahawks did not have another first half field goal after Ingram’s shot at 7:25. So while UVA didn’t play exclusively with all guards throughout the final 28 minutes, it did revive its chances with the initial change.
Over the final 7:01 before halftime, Virginia put together a 19-3 surge to take the lead. Perrantes hit a 3-pointer to start that run and Shayok warmed up quickly too with 9 points during that stretch. Hall also dunked on an offensive rebound on a Shayok layup that just rolled off the rim.
”We had to make some changes offensively, even defensively,” Perrantes said. ”I think we’re learning. We’re learning we can play five guards if need be. … It’s there. It’s always there for us. We’re just learning and trying to figure out how to survive and advance.”
The Perrantes 3-pointer that started the run along with Shayok’s sizzling finish to the first half served as foreshadowing too. Both players put up points in a big way in the second half. Perrantes scored 19 points after intermission to finish with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting to go with 3 assists. Shayok added 12 points in the second half and posted a new career high of 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting.
That marked the first time UVA had two 20-point scorers in an NCAA Tournament game since J.R. Reynolds (28) and Sean Singletary (23) did it against Albany exactly 10 years to the day.
Each came up with critical buckets as well. Perrantes hit a jumper to provide the game’s eighth and final lead change with 12:44 to go as UVA moved ahead 46-45. The lead grew to 10 points with a Perrantes triple at 7:57, but the Seahawks charged back. The first time they closed to within one possession at 61-58, Shayok responded with a 3-pointer.
When UNCW got it 69-66, Perrantes’ layup kept the comeback at bay. Finally with the score at 73-71 in the final 30 seconds and the shot clock winding down, Shayok drove and kissed in a shot off the glass to help seal the deal. Hall and Thompson, also junior guards, got in on the closing act too. Hall hit a pair of free throws with 3:05 to go to push the lead to 69-64 and Thompson followed suit at the 1:09 mark to double the lead to 73-69. Hall registered 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. Thompson finished with 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots in a critical role.
“I just wanted to provide energy off the slow start,” Shayok said. “Personally, I just didn’t want to go out like that, and I knew my teammates didn’t either. So I just wanted to come out and provide what I could on both ends and just bring a spark.”
“We have a team full of players who can attack and get to the rim and make plays,” Thompson said. “We really couldn’t run our offense that we usually run. So we just spread it out and just decided to attack.”
The Cavaliers also did enough defensively to get the win after the rough start. The move to five guards helped that cause too as it allowed UVA to switch every screen for long stretches. Most importantly, perhaps, it cooled off a hot start by the Seahawks. They made 10 of their first 20 shots, but ended the half making only 1 of their last 10.
That theme carried through in the end as well. Wilmington made 5 of its first 9 3-pointers, but made only 5 of 17 the rest of the game. That included missing the final three 3-pointers of the first half. After making 50% of its initial 20 attempts, UNCW made 15 of its final 41, a 36.7% clip. The Seahawks ended up at 41% shooting for the game, including 38.5% from 3-point range.
Chris Flemmings made some plays late and led his team with 18 points, while Devontae Cacok tallied a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds. Ingram scored 17 points for UNCW, while Mosley added 14. C.J. Bryce had 8 points.
Those efforts proved enough to push an ACC team in the opening game for the second straight year – UNC Wilmington fell to Duke in a battle last year in the same round – but not enough to get the upset. The victory gave Virginia a shot at its third Sweet 16 appearance in the past four seasons. To get there, UVA will have to take down fourth-seeded Florida in the Gators’ home state on Saturday.
Shayok explained his big Thursday afternoon performance and the Hoos can try to take that theme with them into the weekend.
“Just playing for my guys right here and the coaching staff and just my teammates,” Shayok said. “We’ve come so close over the years, and the chemistry is just through the roof now. So just trying to play through these guys and just be in the moment and play as free as possible.”