COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gardner-Webb knew it would take a perfect game to knock off Virginia. For almost 20 minutes, the Bulldogs delivered.
A 16 seed making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament was not intimidated by the Cavaliers, who won a share of the ACC regular season and were looking to avenge an embarrassing loss to 16th-seeded UMBC last year — the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to suffer such a defeat.
For one half, Gardner-Webb played even better than UMBC. The Bulldogs never trailed in the opening half, building a lead as large as 14 points. Gardner-Webb hit 4 of 9 3-pointers and shot 53.6 percent from the field while forcing eight Virginia turnovers in the first half, more than the Cavaliers have had in eight of their last 14 full games.
“Their offense was fast,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of the early blitz. “We tried to prepare as well as we could, and we struggled. I think the nerves were there, but they were banging shots and had us chasing.”
The Bulldogs had a near home court advantage, as hundreds of vocal fans made the two-plus hour drive from Boiling Springs for the game.
“It was a great atmosphere here,” said guard Jose Perez, who had a team-high 19 points and three assists. “I just want to thank the fans for traveling down here. Looked like there were about a thousand people here supporting us.”
The crowd helped spark the Bulldogs’ run and seemed to have Virginia on its heels early.
“Our fans really had us going,” DJ Laster said. “We fed off their energy. We were just playing well as a team, passing the ball, making the right cuts, making the right plays.”
Virginia was able to rally late in the half, however, closing out the opening 20 minutes on a 14-6 run to get the lead down to six points.
“I thought that was pivotal for us,” Bennett said, “because Gardner-Webb’s good. They move hard. They’re quick. We understood that.”
That sent the Cavaliers into the half with optimism.
“It was a different halftime than last time (against UMBC),” Bennett said. “I said to my staff, uplift them, and we taked about don’t panic.”
On the other side, Gardner-Webb knew there was plenty of basketball left.
“I really thought the first four minutes (of the second half) were going to be critical,” Gardner-Webb head 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,” he added.
Virginia opened the half on a 22-5 run, pulling in front to stay. Virginia shot 53.3 percent after the break, while holding the Bulldogs to 31.8 percent and forcing 12 second-half turnovers.
The Cavaliers pulled away, cruising to a 71-56 win, and leaving Gardner-Webb proud but not satisfied following their tournament debut.
“It’s amazing, but you don’t want to settle for it,” senior Brandon Miller said. “You want more out of it. We’re hungry for more. We’re up 14, and, all of a sudden, we give up the lead. We’re dogs. At the end of the day, we want to keep pushing that lead as much as we can. It didn’t go our way like we wanted it to. They figured it out a little bit.”