COLUMBIA, S.C. – Not again.
Those words had two different meanings for Gardner-Webb and Virginia across each half of their first-round NCAA contest.
For Virginia, finding itself trailing for the entire first half to a 16th-seeded Runnin’ Bulldogs team had to have an all-too-familiar feeling after last year’s contest with UMBC. Gardner-Webb took a 36-30 advantage to the interval that, frankly, felt as though it could have been considerably more.
For Gardner-Webb, it saw Virginia find itself at a most inopportuned time, as the ‘Hoos went on a 12-0 run at the start of the second half, delivering a staggering blow that knocked the ‘Dogs backwards. Unlike it had so often over the last two weeks, though, Gardner-Webb could not respond.
Virginia used a 22-5 second-half spurt and three double-digit scorers to both exorcise some of its own demons and bring to a close the first-ever NCAA tournament appearance for Gardner-Webb, recording a 71-56 victory Friday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena.
After all the memes, all the jokes, all the chants and everything else, what was different this year for UVa?
“I remember last year, halftime against UMBC, one of our coaches came in screaming at us,” said Virginia guard Ty Jerome. “We felt their panic last year at halftime, and that was one thing I remember, not doing a good job keeping everyone calm. That’s what I pride myself on, too. Every time-out, it’s just a matter of keeping guys calm, keeping guys calm, but also keeping our edge. You’ve got to find a balance. You can’t come out, everything’s going to be okay, stay calm. Just trying to find the right balance of staying calm and keeping our edge.”
Gardner-Webb (23-12) eclipsed 50 percent in that first half, draining 15-of-28 shots from the field and dishing out seven assists on the 15 conversions. Forward DJ Laster paced Gardner-Webb with 10 in the half. The lower seed at one point enjoyed a 20-to-10 advantage on points in the paint, working its way through Virginia’s ball screen defense for point-blank looks at the tin. The Runnin’ Bulldog defense also limited Virginia (30-3) to just two buckets on nine three-point attempts in the half.
“We felt like we had a great half, obviously, and we talked about some of the things that we felt like led to us getting stops and led to us being able to get good shots, and just kind of emphasized trying to continue to do those things,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft of his halftime strategy. “We really emphasized trying to communicate defensively on that far end, because they weren’t going to have our bench talking to them and calling things out, and to try to stay connected there.”
Both coaches emphasized the importance of the first segment of the second half, and it proved pivotal. Jose Perez contributed a bucket just shy of two minutes into the period, and that would be the last Gardner-Webb score until a David Efianayi triple over four minutes later. In that span, the six-point Runnin’ Bulldog lead had become a six-point Virginia advantage.
“We wanted to give them something where they could be assertive and not mix things up, and say run this, run that. Just, here’s our base and play out of it, and get on the glass. I thought we did that,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. “If there’s something inside, yes, try to get to the lane. Then, obviously, some shots went down, and it was definitely part of it. We had to, without forcing or taking too many bad shots. I thought there was a good balance.”
“I think probably them talking about some things in time-outs, talking about some things at halftime as the game wore on and they got a little bit of a rhythm guarding us, and they made some adjustments,” said Craft. “They started switching Jose Perez’s pick-and-rolls, which he had made some threes early. So that took his threes away. Then we were trying to post him on Clark, their point guard, and they were doubling the post, and we didn’t handle that great.”
Another adjustment involved clamping down on Laster.
“D.J. Laster had some success inside there early, and they began to double the post. Their length bothered us when they came with the double-teams, and we were getting passes deflected,” said Craft. “Just our offensive rhythm was out of sorts that last three minutes (of the first half), and I thought a lot of the second half, as well.”
By the time Gardner-Webb again struck from the floor, that six-point deficit had become 14. It would never again sink below 11. Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter was key to the second-half outburst, tallying 17 of his game-high 23 in the closing stanza. Hunter found the net on 6-of-9 second-half tries.
“I was just trying to score on the offense. I didn’t play outside of it. I just tried to be aggressive when my team needed me and make shots,” said Hunter.
“They were getting it on those pick-and-rolls like right to the block and being able to kind of finish over our smaller size,” said Craft. “I did think they made some good adjustments to kind of get it to a spot that was hard for us to guard, and Hunter was — yeah, he’s a monster for us to guard, and most of the country.”
Hunter’s 23 guided Virginia and all scorers. Mamadi Diakite contributed 17 off the pine, while Ty Jerome added 13. Virginia shot 51.9 percent (28-for-54) on the game, while outrebounding the Runnin’ Bulldogs, 35-21.
Freshman Jose Perez tallied 19 for the Big South Conference champions, drilling 7-of-10 shots from the field (4-of-6 from distance). Seniors David Efianayi and Laster scored 12 and 10, respectively. Gardner-Webb shot 44 percent (22-for-50), despite struggling to a 31.8 percent second half (7-for-22).
Virginia advances to Sunday’s second-round matchup with ninth-seeded Oklahoma. Tip time for that contest will be announced later tonight.
Postgame Press Conferences