Normally, 16-1 games in the NCAA tournament are a total snooze as the big bully teams end upset bids in the first three minutes of game action. That hasn’t been the case for the Virginia Cavaliers over the past two seasons.
Virginia’s 71-56 victory over Gardner-Webb in the First Round of the NCAA tournament was the most important 16-1 game in the history of basketball (don’t look that up).
This has been a long time coming. Well, that’s a lie. This has been 370 days in the making. In case you missed it, the No. 1 overall seed Virginia Cavaliers lost to the plucky 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers in the 2018 NCAA tournament, making the Hoos the first ever to achieve such a feat.
Virginia was without its superstar player De’Andre Hunter — who broke his wrist in the semifinals of the ACC tournament — and everything that could go wrong for the Hoos, did. That anti-climactic and horrifically embarrassing defeat (ass-kicking is more like it as the Retrievers won by 20) capped off the best regular season in Virginia Basketball history and was Virginia’s third loss on the season.
The Cavaliers responded in the best way they knew how: another outstanding regular season. Virginia finished the regular season 28-2 and shared the ACC regular season title with North Carolina at 16-2 (both losses coming to Duke).
And that all almost fell apart in the first round in a meeting with 16-seed Gardner-Webb.
The first 20 minutes went about as terribly as it could for Virginia as Gardner-Webb got out to a 14-point lead in the first half. To put that in context, that was the largest deficit Virginia faced all season. Despite playing Duke (x2), Virginia Tech (x2), Florida State (x2), North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin, and more, the Cavaliers had not trailed by 14 points during any game in 2018-19.
Until the Running Bulldogs.
Gardner-Webb jumped out to a 10-point lead by the 10 minute mark of the first half, and a 14-point lead by the 7:31 mark. It was like someone had chummed the water in the midst of shark week, and the crowd in Columbia, SC (a mere two hours from GW’s campus) was buzzing at the thought of back-to-back epic failures from the Cavaliers.
Every shot the Bulldogs put up seemed to go in. Everything Virginia touched on offense turned into a turnover. It was an unmitigated disaster for anyone Virginia or Virginia-adjacent, and a complete delight for literally the rest of the basketball watching community.
The Hoos were able to cut the deficit to six points by the break, and then Hunter took over to the tune of 17 second-half points (of his game-high 23). Virginia’s problem was clearly mental in the first 10 minutes of the game, shaking the stress loose and overcoming the burden of past failures to avoid another unbelievably dramatic collapse.
All season, the praises of this Virginia squad have been sung, saying they “aren’t like last year’s team”, and “they can score at will.” This team has been in or just outside of the KenPom top-5 all season on defense (duh, Tony Bennett basketball), but also on offense (unlike last season).
In the second half, Virginia proved to be that top team, outscoring the Running Bulldogs 41-20 and cruising to a stress-free win.
There are never guarantees in the NCAA tournament, and Oklahoma — which dropped 95 points on Ole Miss in its first game — is a formidable foe for the Hoos on Sunday, but man, that was the greatest 16-1 win imaginable.
It may have been expected. They may have taken a roundabout way to get there. People may still doubt Virginia.
But, that was the most cathartic victory by a 1-seed in tournament history.