For two years running, Virginia violated the mantra of college basketball’s elite: Never give an NCAA tournament underdog hope.
Let a modest program from a conference such as the Big South, Ohio Valley or Mid-Eastern Athletic stick around, and everyone starts to believe. Players, coaches, fans. Even the band and cheerleaders. The tension in the arena grows palpable, and the favorite can’t help but notice.
Coastal Carolina in 2014. Belmont last season. The Cavaliers struggled deep into the second half of those first-round games before escaping.
Not Thursday. Top-seeded in the Midwest Region, Virginia led by at least 19 points throughout the second half and cruised to an 81-45 knockout.
This the Cavaliers did by making a dozen 3-pointers and hounding the 16th-seeded Pirates into 30.4 percent shooting from the field, both U.Va. records for the NCAA tournament, as was the margin of victory.
“I think when you have teams like Hampton, they’re really good when they can get going,” forward Evan Nolte said. “You don’t want to give them any hope in terms of, ‘Oh, we can play with these guys.’ ”
Led by the fearless Quinton Chievous, a Tennessee transfer accustomed to top-shelf competition, the MEAC champion Pirates (20-11) led briefly before the Cavaliers’ depth and inside-outside balance took over. Virginia (27-7) shot 55.2 percent from the field and assisted on 20 of 32 field goals, with only five turnovers.
“Once they got going, they started to get their post game working, and it was playing catch-up from there,” HU guard Reginald Johnson Jr. said. “They’re a great team.”
So complete was the Cavaliers’ dominance that many accounts likely will focus on Coach Tony Bennett requiring medical attention late in the first half for what he and team officials called dehydration. Not to minimize the fear factor of watching Bennett, as he attempted to rise from his normal crouch in front of the bench, stagger back down.
But Bennett addressed the team at halftime, spoke to television sideline reporter Lewis Johnson before play resumed, coached the second half and did his normal media rounds postgame. Turns out Bennett had been illin’ for a couple of days and became light-headed when he tried to hop up.
Light-hearted was the approach from coach and players afterward.
“I guess he sweats more than we think,” Nolte said. “He needs to start drinking those Powerades.”
Indeed, Bennett joked that he set a personal record for Powerade consumption after his incident.
Good to know that he and Nolte read the NCAA memo on the tournament’s official sports drink.
“I don’t think it’s anything too serious,” Bennett said, “a little more embarrassing than anything. … I’m sure I’ll get teased about it, but we’ll move on.”
The best line came from team prankster Anthony Gill. Before anyone was quite sure what had happened to Bennett, a photo of Gill praying, a hand on Bennett’s shoulder, made the rounds on Twitter. ’Twas a powerful image.
“It worked,” Gill said from the podium, Bennett seated immediately to his right. “I healed him.”
Gill contributed a game-high 19 points, team-best seven rebounds and career-high four assists. Isaiah Wilkins and the 7-foot Mike Tobey combined for 14 points, 10 boards and five blocks. London Perrantes, Malcolm Brogdon, Nolte, Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson teamed for 45 points and the aforementioned dozen 3s, with Perrantes the only Cavalier to log as many as 30 minutes — ideal with a 7:10 p.m. Saturday second-round clash versus Butler on the horizon.
Hampton prefers a much faster pace than Virginia, but the Cavaliers limited the Pirates to six fast-break points, and the U.Va. bench outscored Hampton’s 33-9.
Pirates coach Buck Joyner praised Bennett’s adjustments. When Hampton scored some early buckets inside, Virginia trapped the post. When Johnson beat them off the dribble by using ball screens, the Cavaliers hedged even harder, forcing him wide and deep.
“They pay attention to detail,” Joyner said, “and I think that’s one thing for any championship-caliber team: When you get here, you need to be able to do that.”
This was a benchmark season for Joyner’s program, more so than last year, when the sixth-seeded Pirates won the MEAC tournament, defeated Manhattan in the First Four and fought gallantly against undefeated Kentucky. That was lightning in a bottle. This season was sustained excellence as Hampton won the MEAC regular season outright and affirmed its superiority in the league tournament, its only route to the NCAAs.
The Pirates scored a season-low Thursday, and Chievous, whom Bennett compared to Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson’s first-team All-ACC forward, was their lone effective shooter with 17 points on 7-of-13 from the field. But that’s micro, and Hampton players wisely saw the macro.
“We were incredible this year,” junior guard Lawrence Cooks said. “It was a great group of guys. We’re going to miss our seniors. We did something special for our school, and I know we’ll be remembered for it.”
“How many people get to say they won a conference championship and go to the Big Dance two years in a row?” senior forward Dionte Adams said. “I would say it’s a blessing. … How many people can say they leave a legacy behind?”
Virginia’s seniors have been a part of 110 victories the last four seasons, two shy of the school record set during the Sampson years, 1979-83. But with the tournament’s second round, and perhaps more, ahead, their legacy has yet to be written.