COLUMBIA, S.C. – It only takes one punch in a one-and-done knockout tournament. The Virginia basketball team knows that from experience. Gardner-Webb swung mightily Friday afternoon and left UVA staggered at the start, but the Cavaliers stayed on their feet and dominated the second half for a 71-56 NCAA Tournament win.
That’s exactly the resolve they expected to need during March Madness, no matter how early it came.
“We had an author come and talk to us last year, Joshua Medcalf, and one of the things he said always stuck with me is be where your feet are,” Virginia guard Kyle Guy said. “So some of those outside pressures that can creep into our minds is all external, and it comes from thinking too much about the future, too much about the past. So we just tried to be where our feet were and positive reinforcement all the time and stay united, like Ty [Jerome] said.”
It took a lot to stay on their feet and stay in the moment thanks to an audacious start by the Bulldogs, who enjoyed a home atmosphere with their campus just two hours away. They jumped out to a double-digit lead at 20-10 just 9:03 into the game thanks to 7-of-14 shooting, which Jose Perez capped with a 3-pointer at the top of the key after a timeout. The upset-minded underdogs grew that advantage to 30-16 over the next five minutes too as DJ Laster put down 6 points to keep the start rolling.
That matched UVA’s largest deficit of the season, which came against fellow top seed Duke in February. Even a timeout didn’t quell the momentum during that stretch, but the Hoos’ experience did.
“The first thing is we came into this game knowing real well we were going to be in for a battle,” Jerome said. “So we came into this game knowing how capable Gardner-Webb was going to be. They punched us in the mouth, but we just said we’ve been in that position before. We were at Louisville down 14 or 15, and we came back and won that game. It’s just about doing what we do, staying united, not looking around. Just staying in the moment.”
“Like Ty said, we knew we were in for a battle, and Coach reminded us that we already knew that, and we’ve stood the test of time,” Guy said. “Now we’re just playing our game and staying in attack mode and getting stops and getting good looks, and we’ll live with the outcome.”
Virginia eventually stemmed the proverbial tide and clawed back into things before halftime. The final six minutes saw the top seed cut the lead to 36-30 by intermission. Guy started the late push with 6 points over 5 possessions, but as is often the case, UVA’s defense really helped right the ship.
GW finished the half with 3 turnovers in the final 6 minutes, while making just 2 of 7 shots. It had started the half 13-of-21 shooting with just 1 turnover before that. It proved to be foreshadowing. The Cavaliers kept the defense churning after the break as the Bulldogs committed 9 turnovers in the first 9 minutes of the second half. The 16 seed also made just 2 of 7 shots during that stretch as well. Those 12 turnovers combined with the 4-of-14 shooting spell saw Gardner-Webb’s once promising lead dwindle and disappear.
When Kihei Clark poked away an offensive rebound and then drove and fed De’Andre Hunter for an and-one play at the 16:16 mark, UVA had its first lead at 39-38. Hunter let out a yell and the entire UVA contingent from the bench throughout the stands echoed the roar. That was part of a 22-5 half-opening stretch that snatched the spirit away from the Bulldogs.
“I really thought that first four minutes was going to be critical, whichever way it went,” Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said. “If we were able to make a run there early, maybe we put a little pressure on them, but that didn’t happen. I thought, when they made a couple buckets and we struggled to score and had some bad offensive possessions, then we started to break down defensively. We started to give stuff up that we didn’t give up in the first half. Some of that was mental, just not responding to adversity in the way that we needed to. That was unfortunate.”
It was fitting that Hunter’s traditional 3-point play pushed the Cavaliers into the lead. After all, he had a monster second half. Hunter put up 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and 3-of-3 shooting at the free throw line. That went along with 5 rebounds and 1 assist all after intermission. He finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 assist.
The Hoos also got a big second half from Mamadi Diakite and Ty Jerome too. Diakite missed just one shot in the second half when he scored 13 of his 17 points and grabbed 8 of his 9 rebounds. Jerome, meanwhile, had 8 of his 13 points and 4 of his 6 assists after intermission too.
Throw in 8 points from Guy and Braxton’s Key’s 5 points in 11 minutes and that was too much for the Bulldogs to overcome with UVA’s defense dialed in after a slow start. GW ended up shooting 44% with 16 turnovers, which included 31.8% shooting with 12 turnovers in the final 20 minutes. Perez led his team with 19 points,while David Efianayi added 12. Laster finished with 10 points after his early flurry.
The Wahoos now face No. 9 seed Oklahoma on Sunday in Columbia.
“I thought the way these guys [fought in] the last part of the first half to get it back to a six-point game was pivotal for us because Gardner-Webb’s good,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “They move hard. They’re quick. We understood that. They had a great backing, you could feel that. … And then the second half, there was a few adjustments that we did, but these guys really stepped up and played, and that’s a pressure, there’s no doubt about it. You know, when you’re in that spot, you feel the crowd, but it’s something we had to go through. I’m glad I’m up here this year feeling a little different than when I had Ty and Kyle with me last year.”