Offensively challenged Virginia was in a world of hurt early.
UNC Wilmington was pouring in 3s, and U.Va. couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Mistakes and poor execution … turnovers and missed shots … Virginia was reeling.
Six 3-pointers … forcing five turnovers, while giving away none … UNCW was rolling.
The popular 12-5 upset? Sure looked like it.
Then U.Va. coach Tony Bennett called a timeout to stop the bleeding with 7:25 to play in the first half.
Virginia was down big, trailing by 15 points. The Cavaliers needed something — anything.
Bennett went unconventional. He went cerebral. He went with five guards.
“I teased our guys, ‘I’m glad we worked on our five-guard lineup all week in practice,’” Bennett said after Virginia rallied and then held off a UNCW squad that could beat any team, anywhere the way they played Thursday, 76-71. “We knew we were going to have to play four guards, and we did talk about it as a staff, and Coach (Brad) Soderberg led the scout at our last practice and said, ‘Do you want to get a few reps with five guards?’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ ”
But he did Thursday. Right when U.Va. needed it most.
And it worked.
Virginia turned it on. Marial Shayok, one of the five guards, turned it on.
From that timeout, U.Va. went on a 19-3 run over the last seven minutes of the first half to take a 1-point lead into the break.
In that run, Shayok had 9 points. He finished with a career-high 23.
There’s just something about Shayok in March. He did it last year. He did it Thursday.
“I’m not surprised that he did what he did today,” said Virginia senior guard London Perrantes. “I feel like last year, he was doing the same thing in the NCAA tournament.”
Oh, he was. But not at this level. And not by having to be the one to help carry the Cavaliers.
“I just wanted to provide energy off the slow start,” said Shayok, who came into the contest averaging 8.6 points. “Personally, I just didn’t want to go out like that, and I knew my teammates didn’t either. So I just wanted to come out and provide what I could on both ends and just bring a spark.”
Shayok took a hard charge just 1:05 into the second half but got up and stayed in. He was down. Not out.
Just like Virginia.
U.Va. showed guts. And some offense. UNCW threw everything it had at the Cavaliers … and the Cavs took it, were rocked a little bit, but weren’t done.
And Perrantes was just getting going.
Perrantes, Virginia’s undisputed leader and floor general, is ice cold. Calm. Calculated. Consistent. Clutch.
His drives and finishes were huge down the stretch, both when he scored — he finished with a game-high 24 points, 19 of them in the second half — and when he dished.
“It’s a big-time performance on a big stage, something I’ve grown fond of watching him do over the years,” Bennett said of his senior point guard. “It’s just one game. We get to the next one, but I liked what I saw, and I was proud of him.”
Yes, Virginia will play another one — Saturday against fourth-seeded Florida.
Virginia survived to play another one.
And Virginia thrived. Yes, thrived.
After they were pushed and punched, the Cavaliers responded.
This was the way they had to play — not just the five-guard look, but the swagger with which they came back.
This was the fight they needed.
This is the fight they had to win.