COLUMBIA, S. C. — No. 1 Virginia avoided a repeat of last year’s historic loss to UMBC when it overcame a double-digit deficit to beat No. 16 Gardner-Webb 71-56 in the NCAA tournament on Friday afternoon.
Virginia, which entered the tournament 29-3 with an ACC regular-season championship under its belt, trailed by as many as 14 points and went into halftime down six to a Gardner-Webb team that had never played in the tournament before.
“They stepped to the challenge, even though it was a little wobbly at times,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said afterward.
If the memory of last year’s loss to UMBC — when Virginia became the first 1-seed to ever lose to a 16 — had faded, it came rushing right back thanks to an uncharacteristic eight first-half turnovers.
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But guard Ty Jerome said his team never panicked.
“They punched us in the mouth,” he said. “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. So it’s just about doing what we do, staying united, not looking around, just staying in the moment.”
Said fellow guard Kyle Guy: “We never hung our heads too low.”
In the second half, Virginia began feeding De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite, using their length as a weapon against the undersized Gardner-Webb. The two combined for 30 second-half points, fueling the comeback.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett reflects on the comeback win vs. Gardner-Webb and explains how the game turned around in the second half.
Bennett homed in on another difference in the second half: offensive rebounds and scrambling to pick up loose balls.
“I thought the resolve of our team was good to weather that storm and have a good second half,” he said.
When asked whether his team could relax after getting past the first game of the tournament, Bennett responded with a question of his own: “Did you watch Oklahoma play?”
Oklahoma was impressive earlier in the day, beating Ole Miss 95-72 to set up Sunday’s game against Virginia.
“That will always be part of our story — I understand that,” Bennett said, referring to the UMBC loss. “And I’m sure a lot of people thought it was gonna be part of our story a second year in a row. But it’s just now — this is a new year; this is trying to be in the moment.”