- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. — A pack of orange-shirted Virginia fans wondered where their brethren was. Just a few hours’ drive from home, PNC Arena wasn’t swarmed with Cavaliers fans who followed their top-seeded team south. One made mention of Chicago, site of the Sweet 16 should Virginia advance. His friends saved their money and time off to put toward that trip since moving out of Raleigh seemed to be such a likely conclusion.

The first step on Thursday afternoon was the kind of drubbing that reinforced those thoughts. Virginia made the seeding gap between itself and No. 16 Hampton appear appropriate in an unencumbered 81-45 first-round NCAA tournament win, moving on to play No. 9 seed Butler on Saturday. The only question it was left with after the game was what had happened to coach Tony Bennett.

With 34.1 seconds to play in the first half, Bennett bent at the waist before crumbling slowly backward to the ground on the sideline. He sat on the floor dazed before athletic trainers rushed to his side. Bennett was placed on a stool and given hydration. The referees called timeout. Bennett was helped up to a stool, then eventually back to a seat on the Virginia bench. After a couple minutes and the game resuming, staff members each grabbed one of Bennett’s arms just above the elbow to help steer him to the locker room with five seconds to play in the half.

“I’ve just been a little under the weather the last couple of days,” Bennett said. “I think I was a bit dehydrated. Then, when you’re squatting down and get up quick, I just grayed out or blacked out a little bit. I was saying something to London. Had more Powerade than I’ve ever had in my life right now. I’m hopefully hydrated well. That’s happened before where you just get up quick and been a little dizzy. I don’t know. Just happened kind of quick.”

When he returned for the second half, he intently downed yellow then orange fluids while on the sideline. Bennett is not a sideline whirlwind under normal circumstances. The first-half spell muted his demeanor even more. He spent most of the second half on a stool, forcing assistants to lean to the left of a seated Bennett to see Virginia on the offensive end.

Bennett said he is more embarrassed than concerned going forward. He expects to be sufficiently ridiculed for the incident. Some jabs began even before he spoke after the game.

Among the stringent NCAA regulations during the tournament is that players speak before coaches in postgame press conferences. That provided Virginia forward Anthony Gill a chance to explain his view of the incident, plus his divine influence on resolving it.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Gill said. “I was praying just to make sure he was OK. Worked. I healed him.”

Two years ago in the same arena, Virginia was also a No. 1 seed. The opening evening then was a slog. The Cavaliers trailed at halftime by five points against Coastal Carolina. Eventually, they won by 11. Last season, as a No. 2 seed, Virginia dealt with another taught start to the tournament when No. 15 seed Belmont latched onto it. A relieving 12-point win moved it to the next round.

Against Hampton, the duration of concern was brief. When the Pirates chopped Virginia’s lead to two points, 20-18, Malcolm Brogdon stuck his finger in the air to call for the ball. He made his first 3-pointer of the night after receiving it. Virginia’s vexing post trap caused a turnover, leading to Brogdon’s no-look pass to Isaiah Wilkins for two-handed dunk. Another Brogdon 3-pointer followed. He stole a pass, then was fouled on the subsequent drive.

The burst yanked Virginia in front, 28-18, with 3:35 to play in the first half. By halftime, the lead was 19 points. By the time supper was ready, Virginia’s prime trio of Brogdon, Gill and London Perrantes was giggling at a press conference following a 36-point win, the program’s largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game. The only drama belonged to Bennett, a scenario he would be happy to do without.

“You’re making too big of a deal about it,” Bennett said when asked if he would need an IV later. “I’ll be fine.”

Virginia’s win had the markings of a mismatch between college basketball’s differing conferences. Hampton entered the tournament as the MEAC champions. Virginia finished tied for second in the ACC during the regular season and as the runner-up in the ACC tournament. Depth of size and skill were apparent differences.

“They actually went to their bench and got bigger,” Hampton coach Edward Joyner Jr. said. “We don’t see that.”

Bennett put 7-foot Mike Tobey next to 6-foot-8 Anthony Gill. Hampton was at a disadvantage with one of them on the floor. The coupling proved a brutish element the Pirates could not handle. Tobey had three blocks, and the two combined to shoot 12-for-19 from the field. A team-record 12 3-pointers were added as Virginia unzipped Hampton from inside out.

The scoring gap placed Brogdon and his fellow starters onto the bench with more than six minutes remaining, starting their time to rest before the next game early. On Saturday, Virginia plays a former tournament Cinderella, Butler, which beat Texas Tech in the Midwest Region’s opening game.

For one day, most things were easy. Gill dunked and mended his coach. Brogdon was provided uncommon rest. Virginia was finally able to ease into the third round. Those with flights for Chicago came one step closer to their choice paying off.

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