- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. – They came off the floor stone faced even as cheers rained down upon them from a delirious, happy crowd.

For a time, it seemed Virginia was going to be on the wrong side of history in the second round of the NCAA tournament. No No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16, after all. The fact that the Cavaliers, who trailed Coastal Carolina by five points at halftime and were tied with just 8:52 left to go, won 70-59 in the end wasn’t much consolation.

Virginia turned its stifling defense on when it needed to. But a better effort is needed on Sunday when it faces No. 8 seed Memphis in an third-round game with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.

“Seeing Duke going down [to No. 14 seed Mercer] reiterates the fact that this tournament, anyone can win,” reserve forward Evan Nolte said. “The margin of error is so slim.”

The Chanticleers were still hanging tight at 50-47 when the roof caved in. The Cavaliers are so difficult to beat in part because they don’t have one star scorer opposing teams can focus on stopping.

On Friday it was Nolte, a sophomore, who put the game out of reach in an explosive stretch of 2:06. Nolte hit two 3-pointers from the left corner and added a short jumper for eight consecutive points as Virginia extended its lead to 58-50 and never looked back.

The Cavaliers’ five-point deficit at the half was the first time a No. 1 seed was losing to a No. 16 since Western Kentucky led Kansas 31-30 on March 22, 2013 in Kansas City. The largest halftime lead by any No. 16 seed was 17 points by East Tennessee State over Oklahoma in 1989.

That deficit led to some infighting in the locker room at halftime. Virginia had trailed by as much as 10 points, 31-21, with less than two minutes to go in the half. Leading scorer Anthony Gill, a redshirt sophomore, helped chop that deficit with five points before the half. He finished with a game-high 17 points. But frustration still boiled over as the Cavaliers struggled to figure out a new plan of attack.

“There was some bickering going on,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “You could feel the guys – ‘Come on, what’s wrong? We shouldn’t be in this spot.’”

And so Bennett let them vent and then emphasized that they had been an unselfish team all season. If they were going to lose, don’t let it be because they came apart. Not after playing the kind of consistent basketball they had all season. Virginia has now won 29 games. The last time it did that was 1982-83.

“We knew that we were going to pick it up,” Gill said. “We had to pick it up and that’s what we did. Of course, you’re mind can wander, but you just try to stay as focused as you can.”

Added Bennett: “Can a 16 beat a 1? Yeah, of course they can. It’ll probably happen. We were going to be the poster child for that if we didn’t pick it up.”

Saturday morning, the rested Cavaliers, whose game started at almost 10 p.m. and ended well after midnight, will be in a better mood. They’ll have a shootaround and watch film. They’ll get ready to play Mercer, high on its own after that stunning upset of Duke.

A trip to the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden in New York is on the line in a game that will tip at 8:40 p.m. And all that will matter is that they survived Coastal Carolina’s push, they advanced to the next round. The doubts that may have crept in will be a distant memory.

“Someone asked me, ‘When you’re on the bench the first five minutes, did you ever think we could lose this game?’” Nolte said. “I said ‘If you’re sitting on the bench and you’re thinking your team could lose the game you shouldn’t be on the team’ because the goal is to win the game.”

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