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NCAA tournament: Virginia exhales after slow start against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb


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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Oh, so that’s what the real Virginia looks like. 

For awhile Friday, it didn’t seem like even the Cavaliers remembered who they were, or what they could be. 

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There’s a reason why Virginia won the ACC regular season title and was seeded No. 1 in the South Region. It just took a half of rattling nerves and NCAA tournament demons to finally see it. 

Virginia locked up No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb and advanced with a 71-56 win, but only after a first half in which it trailed by as many as 14 points and recalled echos of last year’s first-round disaster against UMBC. 

Could a program actually lose to a No. 16 two years in a row? It seemed like a possibility worth pondering for awhile. But Virginia answered all questions about its mental state by holding Gardner-Webb to five points and five turnovers in the first 10 minutes of the second half, a spurt that also seemed to open up the Cavaliers’ offensive flow. 

Virginia took the lead with 16:16 remaining on a three-point play by wing De’Andre Hunter and eventually rattled off a 23-3 run to take full control with 10 minutes left. You could practically hear a collective fan base exhale. 

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The question about Virginia coming into this game was how last year’s stunning 20-point loss to UMBC — the first time a No. 1 seed had ever lost to a No. 16 — would play deep in the subconscious of a program that has routinely been dominant in the regular season but fragile in NCAA tournament.

Apparently, Virginia still carried some of that mental baggage because it came out against Gardner-Webb playing tight, worried basketball that did not at all flatter the idea that the Cavaliers had put last year behind them. 

As the turnovers piled up (Virginia had eight of them in the first half) and 3-point shots missed (just 2-of-9 went in), the Cavaliers had to be thinking the same thing as everyone else in the world: Not again, right? 

The truly stunning part, as Gardner-Webb’s lead grew from 12-6 to 20-10 to 30-16, was how easily it was able to break down the Virginia pack-line defense and get into the paint for easy baskets. Though Virginia’s pack-line tightened up in the last few minutes of the half, the Bulldogs were still able to shoot 53.6%, including 4-of-9 from the 3-point line, with just four turnovers as they took a 36-30 lead. 

Virginia’s increased activity on defense carried over to the second half, as they were able to disrupt passing lanes and provide more resistance around the rim. Gardner-Webb shot just 32 in the second half with 12 turnovers. 

Hunter had 23 points (9-of-16 shooting) for Virginia, while big man Mamadi Diakite had 17 points with nine rebounds. 

Virginia will play No. 9 seed Oklahoma in a second-round matchup on Sunday. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA tournament: Virginia exhales after slow start against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb

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