RALEIGH, N.C. — A No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed — that much had been reiterated over and over again before the Virginia men’s basketball team opening game in the NCAA Tournament against Coastal Carolina. But as the team went into halftime down 35-30, that fact was looking slightly less safe.
Whatever coach Tony Bennett said during halftime, the Cavaliers came out the break a changed team, quickly closing the gap and taking the lead, and Virginia would hold on for a 70-59 win to advance to Sunday’s game against No. 8 seed Memphis.
“I said, ‘They’re capable of beating you,’” Bennett said of halftime. “I said, ‘Stop being afraid. If you lose, you lose.’ I said, ‘Play as hard as you can defensively. You’ve got to lay everything you’ve got defensively and let it come offensively.’”
Coastal Carolina came out of the gate hot, hitting six of its first eight shots, going up 12-9 with 13:58 left in the first half. Virginia would fight back, taking a 15-12 lead just more than a minute later. The Chanticleers would once again take the lead at 19-17 with 9:15 to play, and they would retain the lead for the rest of the first half.
“I don’t think we were so much surprised [at the quick start],” Chanticleer graduate guard Eric Smith said. “We are real confident in ourselves and I think we did a good job moving the ball early and getting good looks that we’re accustomed to making and we were able to knock them down in the first half.”
Virginia was down by as much as 10 points with four and a half minutes left in the half, but the team went on a 9-1 run to cut the lead to 32-30 with seven seconds left in the half. Coastal Carolina scored late to go into halftime up 35-30. The score was not what Virginia fans expected, but the players were confident in the team’s ability to turn the game around.
“Someone asked me, they said, ‘When you’re on the bench the first five minutes, did you ever think we could lose this game?’” sophomore forward Evan Nolte said. “And I responded, I said, ‘If you’re sitting on the bench and you’re thinking your team could lose the game, you shouldn’t be on the team,’ because the goal is to win the game. So you’re there saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to win the game.’”
Virginia went on a 12-3 run to open the second half and seize a 42-38 lead. The Chanticleers refused to go away, though, battling back to 42-41 before a three from freshman point guard London Perrantes put Virginia up 45-41. After shooting 52 percent from the field in the first half, Coastal Carolina shot just 32 percent in the second half, which allowed Virginia to begin to make some separation.
The Chanticleers would still tie the game at 47-47, but three free throws from Perrantes and 3-pointer from Nolte would put the Cavaliers up 53-47 and give them control of the game. Virginia would not trail for the rest of the game, as Nolte provided eight key points off the bench in the second half. Coastal Carolina scored just seven points between 8:52 and :45 in the second half as Virginia built a large lead. Redshirt sophomore forward Anthony Gill finished as Virginia’s leading scorer with 17 points, and was strong inside.
“Our system is our system defensively, and it was just an idea of trying to be tenacious,” Bennett said. “Having a mindset of being so tough and sound and make them make plays over the top, contested shots. Some of the shots they hit were tough early. Then we had a few uncharacteristic breakdowns and I just said, ‘Are you going to have an iron will? Are you going to outlast them or will they outlast you? That will determine who will win the game.’”
The win was not as clean as Bennett would have liked, but the Cavaliers advance to Sunday’s matchup with No. 8 seed Memphis, who topped No. 9 seed George Washington earlier in the day. Bennett hopes Friday’s experience can propel the team Sunday.
“You look and say, ‘That won’t cut it when we play Memphis,’” Bennett said. “You can’t spot a team like that. They probably have a little more explosive scoring ability. We’re going to have to be sounder. We’re going to have to be more ready. … At least we came upon the right way for us in the second half and know we’ll have to do it for the majority of the game or most all possessions against Memphis.”