OPINION: No Cinderella, but loads of fun

OPINION: No Cinderella, but loads of fun
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By David Coulson. March 23, 2019. COLUMBIA, SC — The angst in Colonial Life Arena — aka Frank McGuire Arena, for those who don’t buy into corporate renaming — hung like a mountain winter’s fog for Virginia Cavalier men’s basketball fans during the first half of Friday afternoon’s encounter with No. 16-seed Gardner-Webb.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Any and all opinions expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions and viewpoints of Blowing Rock News, its employees, or management. From time to time we include the reasoned opinions and insights of freelance contributors to provide readers with thought-provoking insights and commentary.

COVER IMAGE: A 6-9 sophomore forward, Oklahoma’s Brady Manek seizes opportunity inside the paint. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Could lightning possibly strike the Cavaliers twice?

Every time Virginia has gone on the road this season, it has been taunted by the same acronym — UMBC, UMBC.

The Cavaliers will always be remembered as the first top-seeded team to lose to a No. 16 seed, with Maryland-Baltimore County registering its 74-54 stunner over Virginia just last year.

Ultimately, Gardner-Webb’s excitement of Friday afternoon’s first half fizzled into Virginia’s 71-56 win and an advance to March Madness’ second round on Sunday.

But it was tons of fun while it lasted.

As the Runnin’ Bulldogs extended their lead to 14 points in the first half, expertly threading shot after shot into the basket, the non-Virginia fans in the sold-out arena roared their approval. Thunderous chants of “defense, defense” preceded every GWU stop.

And this historic, old venue — hosting its first-ever NCAA men’s tournament games this weekend — vibrated with excitement on every shot the Bulldogs sank. Even after several Cavalier counter-punches, Gardner-Webb left the court with a 36-30 lead at the intermission. Virginia fans throughout the stands sat in stunned, pensive silence.

But a 15-5 run by the Cavaliers over the first 9:39 of the second half changed the complexion of the contest.

“I thought the way these guys came out and fought in the last part of the first half to get it back to a six-point game was pivotal for us,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I’m glad I’m up here feeling a little different than when I had Ty (Jerome) and Kyle (Guy) with me last year.”

De’Andre Hunter, who sat out the UMBC disaster last year as a freshman redshirt, fueled the Virginia comeback with 17 of his 23 points coming after the break on 6-of-9 shooting.

It was Hunter’s second-chance, conventional three-point play of a drive that gave the Cavaliers their first lead at 39-38 with 16:16 remaining. Gardner-Webb’s confidence began to wane.

“I was just being more aggressive,” said Hunter. “I got some easy buckets at the rim and got the energy going. I felt like that helped us in the second half.”

The Cavaliers looked far from secure in the first half as GWU quickly built a 10-point lead with hot outside shooting from the likes of freshman guard Jose Perez (team-high 19 points and three assists) and David Efianayi (12 points). But rather than panic like it did against UMBC last year, Virginia adjusted and let its talent take control.

“We came into the game knowing real well we were going to be in for a battle,” said UVa point guard Ty Jerome, who had 13 points, five assists and three steals. “Last year was our first year being a No. 1 seed. We came into the game knowing how capable Gardner-Webb was going to be. They punched us in the mouth, but we just said we’ve been in this position before.”

The Cavaliers made the necessary adjustments they didn’t make last year and responded with that run at the start of the second half, unleashing more aggressive defense and working the ball to Hunter and center Mamadi Diakite (17 points, nine rebounds, 8-of-10 shooting).

“It was a different halftime than it was last time,” Bennett admitted. “It was just the ability, because I thought we had fought back … to get ourselves in a spot where there was a lot of basketball left. I said uplift them (at halftime) and we talked about don’t panic, but play with fight, because that’s what got them back in it.”

Gardner-Webb didn’t finish off its chance at an upset, but it did create some first-round memories that will last a lifetime.

“I really felt like the first four minutes (of the second half) were going to be critical,” GWU 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.”

It was less than two minutes into Friday afternoon’s NCAA second-round men’s basketball game with Oklahoma and Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis already didn’t like what he was seeing. Down 4-0 after two defensive possessions, Davis sensed his eighth-seeded Rebels were in trouble … and he was right.

“It just seemed like we wouldn’t contest a shot,” Davis said of the early stoppage of play. “I saw kind of a different look on our team and I just wanted to call a quick time out and just kind of settle our team. It didn’t do a lot of good because (Oklahoma) went on another 9-0 run.”

No matter what adjustments Davis tried to make, nothing seemed to work for Ole Miss. Oklahoma took advantage of serious mismatches on the court, both by burying three-pointers from the perimeter and finding their big men, Kristian Doolittle and Brady Manek open for easy hoops inside.

The No. 9 Sooners shot a sizzling 80% from the floor as they scored the first 13 points of the contest on the way to their 95-72 victory.

If it had been a boxing match, this one would have lasted less time than the Muhammed Ali-Sonny Liston championship rematch.

Doolittle finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds for a double-double and Manek tossed in 18 points during the blowout, while Rashad Odomes and Jamal Bieniemy fired in 20 each to lead the scoring.

“They have been really sharp in practice, really focused,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “I thought they really transferred the things they’ve done all week to the game today.”

Watching from the stands was Trae Young, who went from Oklahoma’s dynamic, on-court leader last season to an NBA star with the Atlanta Hawks. With Young around, the other Sooners were mostly complimentary performers. But now, rather than the focus being on one star, Oklahoma comes at opponents with a variety of weapons.

“Anytime you’ve got a player like Trae, who leads the country in scoring and assists, a lot of things revolve around him,” said Kruger. “Here you’ve got a situation where we need more balance, need more guys contributing and that’s kind of the other extreme.”

And the Sooners will need all of that balance in an intriguing matchup on Sunday evening against top-seeded Virginia, with the winner heading to the Sweet 16.

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