East Regional No. 5 seed Virginia narrowly escaped an upset bid by 12th-seeded UNC Wilmington with a 76-71 victory Thursday afternoon in the first round of the 2017 NCAA tournament at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.
The Cavaliers trailed by as many as 15 in the first half before storming back with a 19-3 run to close out the opening half with a one-point lead. The nation's top scoring defense rose to the occasion by holding the Seahawks to 43 points over the final 26 minutes.
Senior guard London Perrantes paved the way for Virginia with 24 points. Marial Shayok added 23 points off the bench on the strength of a trio of three-pointers, while Darius Thompson chipped in 10 points, four rebounds and a game-high four blocks.
The Seahawks had four players reach double figures in scoring, led by Chris Flemmings with 18 points. He also tallied nine rebounds and four assists. They didn't get much production outside of that quartet, though, as the other five players who saw the floor scored just 10 combined points.
UNC Wilmington was virtually unstoppable early on as its spread offense created matchup problems for the stout Virginia defense. The Seahawks were on pace to score 83 points with seven minutes left in the first half.
Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett decided to go small to combat the underdogs' effective attack, and that decision sparked the ACC team's surge.
NCAA March Madness highlighted a key three from Ty Jerome during the run:
Virginia looked primed to pull away in the second half after building a 10-point lead with less than eight minutes to play.
UNC Wilmington made one last push, though. The Seahawks trimmed the lead to two with just under a minute to play, but a key jumper off the glass from Shayok helped the Cavaliers to close out the win.
March Madness TV showcased the embrace between the coaches after the game:
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports joked about the Cavs' grind-it-out style of play:
Looking ahead, Virginia will play the winner of the matchup later Thursday between Florida and East Tennessee State in the second round. The Gators are a heavy favorite after posting a 24-8 record en route to earning a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance.
If Florida does move on, the round of 32 contest would feature two of the nation's best defensive teams. The Cavaliers couldn't afford another slow start; trying to make up a large deficit would represent a much tougher challenge against the SEC squad.
Meanwhile, UNC Wilmington's campaign comes to a close with a terrific 29-6 record. The Seahawks have emerged as a Colonial Athletic Association power with a 41-13 mark in conference play over the past three years. They'll need to replace Flemmings and Denzel Ingram, though.
Afterward, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett admitted UNC Wilmington presented a different kind of challenge than what his team is used to, per Jeff Borzello of ESPN.
"There's not a team in the ACC that's like [UNCW]," he said. "That was unique from what we've seen all year."
While that can help explain why the Cavaliers struggled out of the gate, RTC East Region noted the coach also stated those types of games are simply part of the NCAA tournament.
"That is March Madness," Bennett said. "The way we were down and fought back. That is what it is."
On the opposite side, Seahawks head coach Kevin Keatts was proud of his team's effort for 40 minutes, even though they came up short in the end, per Alex Riley of Star News Online.
"We're going to walk out of here with our heads held high," he said.