Cavaliers Save Best for Last in NCAA Opener
March 22, 2014
RALEIGH, N.C. — In the same arena in which Duke’s season came to a stunning end early that afternoon, one of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s No. 1 seeds found itself tied 47-47 with No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina with less than nine minutes remaining late Friday night.
After watching the Chanticleers make one improbable shot after another at PNC Arena, UVa coach Tony Bennett said later, he wondered if it might not be his team’s night in this East Region second-round game.
“Sometimes that does creep into your head, if you’re honest,” Bennett said.
But at a point when lesser teams would have panicked, the Cavaliers pulled together and then pulled away for a 70-59 victory. In doing so, they avoided becoming the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament to lose to a No. 16 seed.
Such an upset will probably occur one day, Bennett said, and the Wahoos, much to their chagrin, were “going to maybe be the poster child for that if we didn’t pick it up.”
Reserve forward Evan Nolte made sure the `Hoos experienced no ignominy. He hit two 3-pointers and a pull-up jumper in the final 7:50, a barrage for which the Chanticleers (21-13) were unprepared.
“When they come off the bench, sometimes you’re as not as focused as you need to be,” Coastal coach Cliff Ellis said.
It’s understandable if Nolte, a 6-8 sophomore from the Atlanta area, did not figure prominently in the Chanticleers’ scouting report. He didn’t play last Sunday at the Greensboro Coliseum, where UVa defeated Duke in the ACC championship game, and he hadn’t made a trey in a game since Feb. 26. Nolte hadn’t made two 3-pointers in a game since Jan. 4 at Florida State, Virginia’s ACC opener.
Against Coastal, though, Nolte was 2 for 3 from beyond the arc.
“Evan was huge for us coming off the bench,” said Harris, a senior guard. “I think he really kind of just epitomizes what it means to be part of Virginia basketball. He’s an unselfish guy, he’s a team guy, very positive. He didn’t sulk when he didn’t play … I was really happy for him, and I think it’s huge for us going forward.”
The victory was the first for the `Hoos in the NCAA tournament since 2007. To reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995, UVa (29-6) will have to get past No. 8 seed Memphis (24-9), which eliminated No. 9 seed George Washington 71-66 on Friday night.
The Cavaliers will meet the Tigers in a third-round game at approximately 8:40 p.m. Sunday at PNC Arena, with the winner advancing to New York City.
“We know we’re a better team than what we displayed [against Coastal],” Virginia senior Akil Mitchell said, “but at the same time I think we got the jitters out, and getting another chance to play, another chance to step out on the floor, I think we’ll be better.”
UVa fans turned out in force Friday night at PNC Arena, hoping to see a game light on tension. Instead, they suffered through many anxious moments before Virginia took control in the final minutes. Against one of the nation’s premier defenses, Coastal shot 52 percent from the floor in the first half and led 35-30 at the break.
An 8-0 run had given the Chanticleers a 31-21 lead with four minutes left in the half.
“Credit to Coastal Carolina,” Bennett said. “We weren’t quite dialed in defensively, but they made some tough plays and they showed that they were ready to play. And we were off. We were struggling to score.”
At halftime, Bennett said later, he noticed his players “bickering” with each other, and he reminded them of the importance of unity, one of the program’s five pillars (along with humility, passion, thankfulness and servanthood).
The players heeded Bennett’s message, and in the second half Virginia looked much more like the team that swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles.
“It was a tale of two halves, without a doubt,” Bennett said.
In the final 20 minutes, the `Hoos shot 65 percent from the floor overall, 60 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the line. Moreover, they locked down defensively. Coastal shot 32 percentage from the floor after intermission.
The Cavaliers “showed why they’re good,” said Ellis, a former head coach at Clemson and Auburn, among other schools. “They didn’t panic when we took the lead. They stayed the course. They played tremendous defense, especially the second half. They really took us out of what we wanted to do.”
On offense, Virginia got high-quality shots throughout the game, and once they began falling regularly, the orange-clad fans in the crowd of 17,472 could begin to relax.
Perrantes, a freshman point guard, missed only once from 3-point range — he hit three treys — and he helped Virginia break the game open with a characteristically savvy play.
After Coastal pulled to 47-47 on a 3-pointer by guard Elijah Wilson, Perrantes drew a foul on a shot from behind the arc at the other end. He sank all three free throws to make it 50-47, and after a defensive stop by UVa, Perrantes passed to Nolte for a 3-pointer.
Virginia’s next possession ended with another Nolte trey, which made it 56-48 and seemed to break the Chanticleers’ spirit.
“We needed that,” Bennett said. “His buckets were huge. For him to step up and do that in that setting without playing that much speaks volumes of him.
“You always worry about that. That’s the hardest thing for me as a coach. All these guys desperately want to play. They work so hard. You can’t play them all … But it’s the greatest lesson in saying, `Stay ready,’ because in this setting he was the guy that helped us get to this next round.”
For a player who started eight games as a freshman, this has been a trying season, Nolte acknowledged.
“But I understand being a part of a team and accepting roles,” he said. “You might not get everything you want, but you do it for the betterment of the team.”
The crowd of 17,472 included Nolte’s parents, his brother and his sister. The only people in the arena happier for Nolte than his family might have been his teammates.
“It makes it that much more special,” Nolte said of the support.
FAMILY REUNION: Coastal Carolina’s starters included El Hadji Ndieguene, a 6-10 senior who finished with five points, four rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot.
Ndieguene, who’s from Senegal, came to the United States as an exchange student, and he has lived with UVa guard Rob Vozenilek’s family in Richmond, Va., for the past six years.
Rob’s brother Alec, who punts and kicks for Virginia’s football team, was in the stands Friday night, as were their parents, Tom Vozenilek and Betty Baugh Harrison.
When the teams took the court before the game, Rob Vozenilek said, he greeted Ndieguene.
“It was pretty weird,” said Vozenilek, a junior who’s a valuable member of the Green Machine, Virginia’s scout team.
“I’ve never played against him on different teams. We’ve lived together for six years, and the only time I’ve played against him is in pickup, never anything official. So it was pretty weird. I didn’t really know whether to give a golf clap or not when he scored early on.”
In the end, Vozenilek said with a smile, he refrained from cheering for his friend during the game. Still, he said, it “was just an awesome experience for him to be out there against us.”