By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
OMAHA, Neb. — On March 13, 1976, UVa made its first appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, losing 69-60 to DePaul in Charlotte, N.C. Thirty-six years and three days later, the Cavaliers are about to play their 39th game in the NCAAs.
At 2:10 p.m. Eastern today, UVa (22-9), the No. 10 seed in the NCAA tourney’s West Region, meets No. 7 seed Florida (23-10) at the CenturyLink Center in what is officially a second-round game.
This marks the 17th time a Virginia team has advanced to the NCAA tournament, and the first under Tony Bennett, who replaced Dave Leitao as head coach after the 2008-09 season.
“That was our goal this year,” Bennett said. The Cavaliers decided the NCAA tourney was “a legitimate goal at the start of the year with what we had coming back, and even how we ended last year.”
From a team that finished 16-15 after an epic collapse led to the first-round loss to Miami in the ACC tournament, such players as Mike Scott, Sammy Zeglinski, Assane Sene, Jontel Evans, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell returned.
“That Miami game was a hard loss,” Bennett said, but he challenged his players to use their disappointment as fuel for their offseason workouts.
“And I think the guys obviously had that in the back of their mind, in a good way,” he said. “It was obviously very hard and difficult, but they really all improved and took it a step up with their work ethic this summer in the weight room and on the court in their development in the spring and summer.”
The Wahoos reached the NCAAs nine times under Terry Holland, five times under Jeff Jones, once under Pete Gillen and once under Leitao. In all, UVa’s record in the tournament is a more-than-respectable 22-16, and there have been many memorable moments along the way.
Twice, of course, the ‘Hoos advanced to the Final Four during Holland’s tenure, and in 1981 they won the last third-place game held at an NCAA tourney.
Jones, whose players included Jason Williford, now one of Bennett’s assistants, guided Virginia to the NCAA quarterfinals in 1995.
UVa fans also treasure the memories of performances turned in by such players as Richard Morgan, Ralph Sampson, Bryant Stith, John Crotty, Roger Mason Jr., Junior Burrough and J.R. Reynolds.
Twice in 1989, Morgan scored 33 points in NCAA tournament wins, the first against Providence and the second against Middle Tennessee. No Cavalier has scored more in the NCAAs.
The 7-4 Sampson grabbed 21 rebounds, still the most by a UVa player in the NCAA tourney, in a 1982 loss to UAB.
Stith scored 30 points in a 1990 loss to Syracuse and 28 in a 1989 win over Oklahoma. Crotty had 28 points in a 1990 victory over Notre Dame.
Burrough had 28 points in a 1994 win over Miami (Ohio) and 16 rebounds in a 1995 loss to Arkansas. In the Cavaliers’ lone NCAA appearance of the Gillen era, Mason scored 30 points in a loss to Gonzaga at Memphis, Tenn.
Reynolds scored 28 points in UVa’s first-round rout of Albany in 2007 at Columbus, Ohio. Two nights later, Reynolds rang up 26 in a loss to Tennessee, and the 6-2 guard from Roanoke undoubtedly would have scored more had he not injured his ankle late in the first half.
The UVa player most likely to add his name to that honor roll this season is Scott, a 6-8, 237-pound fifth-year senior from Chesapeake. The first Cavalier since Sean Singletary in 2008 to make the All-ACC first team, Scott averages 18.1 points and 8.4 rebounds. His career highs are 35 points (against Maryland on March 4) and 18 rebounds (versus VMI on Nov. 16, 2008).
Scott said he doesn’t feel pressure to put up big numbers against the Gators.
The key for him is to “just come out and play my game,” Scott said. “Obviously I definitely want to get a ‘W’ and try to get a double-double and lead my team to a win. But if it doesn’t happen and we still win, I’m still satisfied with that.”
The UVa-Florida winner will face No. 2 seed Missouri or No. 15 seed Norfolk State on Sunday in Omaha.