The Seahawks jumped out to an early lead on an ACC team in the NCAA Tournament only to see it evaporate in the second half again.It’s an all-too-familiar story for No. 12 UNCW, and one it will have to relive again after a 76-71 loss to No. 5 Virginia in the opening round in Orlando. The loss comes nearly one year to the date of UNCW’s 93-85 loss to Duke on March 17 in the NCAA Tournament.After a 16-2 UNCW run to take a 26-11 lead with 7:25 remaining in the first half, Virginia charged back to take a 30-29 lead heading into the half. The Cavaliers never looked back, holding the edge for the final 15 minutes of the game behind London Perrantes’ game-high 24 points.Despite the loss, UNCW head coach Kevin Keatts refused to look at it as anything other than a positive to be on the March Madness stage.”I’m so proud of these guys,” Keatts said. “When you think about what we’ve accomplished this year, winning 29 games, winning the regular season, winning our tournament championship, and certainly playing well enough to win the game.”Though we’re disappointed, when we walk out of here, we’re going to walk out of here with our heads high because the effort these guys have given me all year has been unbelievable.”UNCW’s strategy in the first half was brilliant. The Seahawks pushed the pace and spread the floor offensively, highlighted by Ambrose Mosley and Denzel Ingram going 6-for-6 from behind the arc. Virginia was forced to fight back on the offensive end, something the Hoos haven’t been comfortable with all season.While they weren’t especially flashy on offense to close out the first half, the Cavs adjusted.During the first 12 minutes, the Hawks scored 12 points off turnovers. During the final 28 minutes, the Hoos allowed just two points off turnovers. It was a simple fix, but something Keatts said he expected from a Tony Bennett-coached team.”I watched every single ACC game. Only 20 teams were able to score most teams scored under 60 points,” Keatts said. “They held 20 teams to 60 and under. I thought we did a great job. I thought we made those guys adjust to us. Obviously, they had to go small. But you don’t shoot 41 percent against a Virginia defense.”Despite trailing by 10 points with 7:58 remaining the largest lead in the game for UVA the Seahawks answered with a 7-0 run to close the gap. After going scoreless in the first half on five shots, Chris Flemmings registered 18 in the second half to lead the Hawks in scoring.But for every run and every huge shot by Flemmings, Virginia had an answer.Bennett went to five guards late in the first half and rolled with the lineup multiple times in the second which worked well against a team whose leading center is Devontae Cacok at 6-foot-7. That allowed for a career-high afternoon from Mamadi Diakite with 23 points surpassing his last nine games combined.While the loss was reminiscent of the heartbreak from the Duke defeat one year ago, Keatts made sure to clarify this was a completely different situation.”I don’t think either game has to do with one another,” Keatts said. “Obviously, basketball is game of runs, and I thought we made a great run early in the first half, and I thought they did a great job answering the game. Our guys expected to win the game.”Unfortunately, Wilmington’s difficult offseason starts a little sooner than it hoped. The losses of Flemmings, Ingram, Mosley and Chuck Ogbodo will leave three of the Seahawks’ top five scoring threats off the roster next season.Then there’s the questions surrounding Keatts’ job status. One of the hottest commodities at the mid-major level, there are several schools looking for new head coaches including Indiana, NC State, LSU and Illinois that could scoop him up.But for now, the historic season in Wilmington comes to close with another NCAA Tournament loss. Still, the Seahawks exit Orlando with their heads held high and a school-record 29 wins on their resumes.
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