COLUMBIA, S.C. — After the prolonged and ridiculous exercise performed by Duke and UCF in Sunday’s first game here, an excruciating finish that singlehandedly saved this NCAA tournament from sprawling, numbing boredom, Virginia’s unspectacular, and very businesslike, 63-51 dispatch of Oklahoma came as something of a relief to everyone involved. This is particularly true of the winners, who came in here with last year’s epochal loss to UMBC hanging around their ankles, clanking away like Marley’s ghost, and who now move on to a match with Oregon in Louisville on Thursday, and looking every bit the No. 1 seed that they’ve been for two years running now. The cheers that followed them off the floor sounded like a mass exhalation from a fan base that had been holding its breath for a year.
“Only the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff who were part of last year's team and this year's team can truly appreciate and understand—you know, we tried to get back to this spot,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who was smiling like a guy who’d received good news about the reprieve. “Even to be a one seed and then to have to go into the situation and to be down in that game, definitely pressure in terms of the game. So that was real. You could feel it. And to show the resilience to kind of get through that.
“Then I was hopeful that they could play—I don't think it was no worries. There's pressure and excitement and tension to try to advance in this tournament, that's always there, but it was a different feel. It's unlike anything—well, no college basketball team really in the history of the game has had to go through that. It's our doing. We were the first one seed to lose last year, and then all of a sudden to fight back and become a one seed, and then to be in that situation again. You talk about trying to focus in and then getting down, it was real. So I think those guys will have that as something they can always draw upon to say we faced a giant and battled through it.”
All of the Cavaliers looked 20 pounds lighter, and more anxious to get to play in Louisville than any non-equine bipeds ever have. Guard Ty Jerome, whose 12 points helped bail out Kyle Guy, who shot an uncharacteristic 2-for-15 and missed all 10 of his three-point tries, was positively aglow.
“It’s just a testament to our coaching staff really,” Jerome said. “They're doing such a great job of giving us that freedom offensively and just getting us to play hard but allowing us to play free. That's just such a great job by them.
“It's my first time in the Sweet 16, like I said. After last game, I told you I've never been to a Sweet 16. Everyone is talking about a Final Four, but I've never been to a Sweet 16. Just the opportunity to play with this group again for a whole 'nother week and practicing with this group and traveling with this group, that's what means the most, I think. Just to keep playing with this group of guys.”
There was a smooth, edgeless quality to the game, a stark contrast with the hair-in-flames hysteria that had accompanied the previous contest. Early on, Oklahoma, which pounded Mississippi on the boards in its first game, was rendered almost an afterthought. Virginia played the entire second half as a living demonstration of the concept of a “working margin.” It’s lead bounced between 11–15 points, but never really got any closer. Its defense was mobile and reliable.
“They played for each other defensively. I hope,” Bennett said. “They did it at the end of the first half all through the second half against Gardner-Webb, and then all game they just rotated and covered and made it hard for Oklahoma.”
Bennett got a terrific game from Mamadi Diakite, a 6-foot-9 forward from Senegal who didn’t even know he was going to start until Sunday morning. “I mean, starting is a big—to me, it's a big challenge,” Diakite said. “He's telling you, ‘Okay, you have the responsibility to help the team, and we're trusting you.’ So I just answered to it.”
“We got off to a rocky start last game, Mamadi, all of us, and Mamadi responded,” Bennett said. “He just kept playing and stayed steady. So certainly maturity, resilience, those are things that -- you know, it's just part of the maturation process that each player kind of comes at differently, and I say it all the time. He's newer to the game, and he's young and joyful and all those things, and to be able to handle adversity or a hard start, that's a separator for a lot of players. He's definitely coming in the right direction, and he was terrific yesterday and today.”
Mamadi undoubtedly was an important part of Virginia’s continued survival in the tournament but, if there was a turning point–and I’m not saying there was, but this was the game’s most memorable play, anyway—it might have come with 5:05 left in the first half, when substitute Very Big Person Jay Huff, having already drained a three–point shot, got his seven-feet, one-inch self rumbling straight down the lane for a dunk. Virginia went up, 22-15 and Oklahoma became largely irrelevant thereafter. The Sooners trailed by nine at the break and didn’t get any closer the rest of the way.
At the end of the weekend, a very chalky, very predictable round of 16 had developed. Twelve of the 16 top seeds are still alive. Outside of the Duke game here yesterday, and a monumental near-comeback by Iowa against Tennessee earlier in the day, there have not been any games worth remembering, and there has been an appalling number of absolute blowouts, including last year’s champion, Villanova, getting absolutely pounded by 26 points against Purdue. If Aubrey Dawkins’s tip in had fallen 100% through the hoop, instead of the 96.11% of the ball that dropped against Duke, this would be a different tournament but, for now, the One Shining Moment video is going to be about 12 seconds, and one verse long.
Which makes the zeitgeist of the tournament perfect for Virginia, a legitimate top-seed notable for being lethal without being spectacular. It is the button-man in the gray flannel suit. There is no Zion or Tacko on their team. They are not appointment viewing, except in and around Charlottesville, I guess. They are not high-flying NBA padawans like the players at Kentucky. They are good basketball players who together, in that most tired of sporty clichés, are more than the sum of their parts. They have kept pace with their peers. They have earned the pride of place in the brackets that they squandered last year in an unprecedented fashion. They learned that lesson and now all of its pain is exorcised, and what’s left for them to say is the one-game-at-a-time nostrums common to all favorites. In a tournament devoid of Cinderellas, they are at least a worthy kind of Prince Charming.
"We had to be ready from the start,” Bennett said, “and we got off to a real good start, and then we had a little trouble at a stretch there. But we were steady and got good lifts, and again, to absorb not shooting as well from Kyle and the foul trouble from De'Andre, different guys—Braxton [Key] stepped up, Kihei [Clark] was terrific, Mamadi.
“Obviously, Ty and all the guys did the job, but I think that there was a playing for each other defensively, as I said in my opening statement, and sharing the ball and just trying to you know, you get into these possession games trying to impose your will or outlast, and that was part of it. Both teams were playing hard, and fortunately, we just had enough good plays and stops at the right time. Just survive and advance. Now we go and play there. I'm not even sure who we play, if that game's over or not. So we'll get to all that stuff. But we will enjoy the pursuit of what we’re doing.” If there’s anything close to normal in this annual hootenanny, that’s it.