COLUMBIA, S.C. — De’Andre Hunter spread his arms wide, as if he was welcoming all of Charlottesville into his embrace. He smiled even wider as he skipped down the court, having just drilled the 3-pointer that excoriated Virginia’s NCAA Tournament first-round demons for good.
PHOTO GALLERY: See a collection of photos from Virginia's first-round victory in a gallery at the end of this story
The Cavaliers had spent the previous 12 months living in the shadow of last March, when they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the men’s NCAA Tournament history. That cloud resurfaced over Colonial Life Arena on Friday afternoon, when No. 16-seed Gardner Webb entered halftime with a six-point lead over No.1-seed Virginia.
The arena buzzed.
Virginia fans panicked on social media.
Was it happening again?
No, Hunter said with his play. The guard scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, guiding Virginia to a 71-56 win over Gardner-Webb.
The Cavaliers will play No. 9-seed Oklahoma in the second round Sunday. The Sooners rolled past No. 8-seed Ole Miss in the preceding contest, which lacked the theatrics of Virginia’s dramatic second-half resurgence.
Gardner-Webb’s campus in Boiling Springs, North Carolina is less than 150 miles from Columbia, and as such the crowd leaned decidedly in the Running’ Bulldogs’ favor. It was the first national appearance for the players, but also for the school’s band and cheerleaders. A row of eight shirtless fans with the letters ‘SKODAWGS’ across their chests roared through the opening tip.
Gardner-Webb was ready to repeat history.
And the Runnin’ Bulldogs seemed primed to do so for much of the first half. The Cavaliers, who have answered questions about last season’s defeat to UMBC all season, came out tight and unsteady. They fumbled the ball on offense, missed routine assignments on defense. As Gardner-Webb’s lead ballooned, the Cavaliers wore blank faces.
As the rest of the nation watched on television, the Runnin’ Bulldogs shot 15-for-28 in the first half and entered the break leading 36-30.
“We came into this game knowing real well we were going to be in for a battle,” Virginia guard Ty Jerome said. “We came into this game knowing how capable Gardner-Webb was going to be, and they punched us in the mouth.”
The rap on Coach Tony Bennett’s program is that is not built for postseason success, that regular season dominance gives way to early dismissals in March. Last season’s defeat intensified the sentiment.
Virginia pushed back against that narrative after halftime. With center Jack Salt on the bench, nursing an apparent ankle injury, forward Mamadi Diakite (17 points, nine rebounds) proved dominant on the glass, turning misses into offensive rebounds and putback dunks.
When Diakite couldn’t get to the ball, guard Kihei Clark did. The freshman, who has come under fire by some fans for his inconsistent shooting, chased down loose balls and kept possessions alive long enough for Hunter or Jerome (13 points) to shoot Virginia back into contention.
“His competitiveness and his ability to come up with loose balls was significant,” Bennett said of Clark, who recorded three steals and five rebounds.
Jerome nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the perimeter to put Virginia up 42-39 early in the half, then met Hunter for a chest bump as Gardner-Webb burned a timeout.
It was the beginning of the end for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, who defeated Radford in the Big South Conference Tournament. Virginia, as it is wont to do, snatched back control of the game. The Pack Line yielded missed shots and turnovers, and on offense the Cavaliers pounced. Diakite took over on the glass, pushing inside for easy layups and putbacks. Soon the game was out of reach.
Hunter hit the 3-pointer that gave Virginia a 52-41 lead, and as he ran back on defense, Jerome tailed him and shouted at the Gardner-Webb fans in attendance. He pointed down at the court repeatedly.
Virginia had reclaimed control.