March 16, 2017

By Jeff White (

ORLANDO, Fla. — When asked about his players, University of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett invariably responds with a variation of this line: We’re going to need them all.

That’s his mantra at virtually all of his press conferences, and Bennett’s message doesn’t change when he addresses his team privately.

“He says it every single day, every single game,” UVA redshirt junior Devon Hall said.

“Every day,” freshman guard Ty Jerome said. “And he means it.”

Get ready. Stay ready. Your opportunity will come. Those are not empty words from Bennett, as Darius Thompson and Marial Shayok can attest.

Each played a key, if improbable, role Thursday afternoon in Virginia’s 76-71 victory over UNC Wilmington at the Amway Center in the NCAA tournament’s first round.

In his first start since Dec. 31, Thompson, a 6-4 redshirt junior, had 10 points, four rebounds, a career-best four blocked shots and no turnovers in his team-high 34 minutes.

Even better was Shayok, a 6-5 junior. He scored a career-high 23 points to help Virginia, the No. 5 seed in the East Region, advance to the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 for the fourth straight season.

Shayok slumped late in the regular season, but his teammates say he never lost his confidence.

“I talked to him every day, told him the tournament was coming,” point guard London Perrantes said. “That’s usually when he starts to shine. I told him to keep the faith, keep [his] head up high, because we’re going to need him at some point, and obviously we needed him today.”

Shayok, whose career high coming in was 19 points, played 30 minutes against UNCW (29-6), the No. 12 seed in the East Region. In his previous five games, he’d totaled 14 points in 54 minutes.

“Marial went from starting to not starting, to now playing and giving us big minutes and huge points and making big plays on this stage in March,” Hall said.

Shayok’s first basket evened the score at 7-7. His next nine points came during the 19-3 run with which the fifth-seeded Wahoos closed the first half. After falling behind by 15, the ‘Hoos went into the break leading 30-29.

“I just wanted to provide energy [after] the slow start,” Shayok said. “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.”

If Shayok’s contribution was unexpected, the big-game heroics of Perrantes were nothing new. Perrantes, the Cavaliers’ only senior, led all scorers with 24 points, hitting 9 of 14 shots from the floor in what he was determined would not be his final college game.

“London knows how I feel about him, how much I trust his game and all we’ve been through,” Bennett said. “It’s a big-time performance on a big stage, something I’ve grown fond of watching him do over the years.”

The 6-2 Perrantes played 33 minutes Thursday. He would have played more had he not left the game with an elbow injury late in the second half, a stinger that caused him to temporarily lose feeling in his left arm.

“So I was trying to get the feeling back into my arm,” Perrantes said. “It wasn’t really working. So I had to come out. And then just like a minute or so later, I started to get more feeling in it, and then I was fine.”

After re-entering the game, Perrantes tossed in an underhanded shot with the shot clock about to expire to put Virginia ahead 66-59 with 4:30 remaining. The Cavaliers (23-10) continued to score, but the Seahawks continued to fight back.

With 1:36 to play, the right-handed Perrantes scored on a left-handed bank shot to push the Cavaliers’ lead to 71-66. UNCW refused to yield. At last, though, the `Hoos delivered the coup de grace: a short jumper from the left side that Shayok banked in to make it 75-71 with 24.2 seconds to play.

“That was huge,” UVA forward Isaiah Wilkins said. “I’m really happy for that dude. It’s a big confidence boost for him, because we’re going to need him going down the stretch.”

Next up for Virginia, which reached the Elite Eight last season, is a Saturday date with No. 4 seed Florida (25-8) at a time to be determined. The Gators ousted No. 13 seed East Tennessee State 80-65 in the second game Thursday at the Amway Center.

At the home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, Thursday’s opener was much tighter.

“It was a great college basketball game [in which] I thought Virginia made a few more plays than us,” UNCW head coach Kevin Keatts said.

The Seahawks made most of the plays early, hitting 6 of 10 from 3-point range in the first 13 minutes. By the time UVA sank its first 3-pointer, the Seahawks already had made six treys.

“They came out hot,” Perrantes said. “They had their run. We had ours. And then it was just back and forth in the second half.”

On Nov. 30, Virginia rallied from 16 points down to defeat Ohio State at John Paul Jones Arena. The stakes were much higher Thursday, and the `Hoos showed impressive resolve after falling behind 26-11.

It was during that UNCW run that Bennett went for the first time this season — and perhaps the first time in his coaching career — with a five-guard lineup.

“I don’t actually remember us ever working on that in practice or anything,” Hall said, “but it helped us.”

Shayok, who has a devastating pullup jumper, was especially effective when the Cavaliers spread the floor.

“We went five guards, and [UNCW] had a hard time guarding him,” Bennett said. “He’s a crafty scorer. He can create. If you’ve watched him over the years, he can manufacture his own shot, and we needed it all.”

UNCW’s tallest starter, sophomore Devontae Cacok (12 points, 15 rebounds), is 6-7, and Virginia’s coaching staff came into the game planning to use a four-guard lineup extensively. Had the 6-7 Wilkins been healthier, the `Hoos might have stuck with that strategy.

But Wilkins, who has been battling a stubborn illness, was limited to a five-minute stretch in the first half, after which he was too exhausted to continue. He practiced only once in the three days leading up to the game, on Wednesday, but was determined to try to play against UNCW.

“He’s a warrior,” Bennett said. “I feel for him. I put my arm around him, and I said, `I’ll never forget your courage and your heart to try,’ because we needed him when he was sick to get us into this tournament.”

Wilkins said he’s lost 20 pounds during his illness.

“It didn’t work out for me [Thursday], but it worked out for us, and that’s more important,” he said.

Wilkins might be able to play next weekend if the `Hoos advance to the Sweet Sixteen, but he expects to miss the game with Florida.

“Hopefully we can get this job done Saturday with the rest of what we’ve got,” Wilkins said.

Those players, of course, include his classmate Shayok, the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer (9.0 ppg) this season. Wilkins spent part of the first half in the locker room getting medical treatment Thursday and so missed some of the Shayok Show, but he saw enough to appreciate his friend’s gem.

“That’s like poetry in motion for me, because I know what he’s capable of,” Wilkins said. “I play one-on-one with him in the gym all the time, so just to see him do it to somebody else is really, really cool.”

Shayok, Virginia’s sixth man for the first 14 games, started the next 14 before moving back to bench late in the regular season. But after scoring 10 points in UVA’s quarterfinal loss to Notre Dame last week in the ACC tournament, he stayed hot Thursday.

“Marial’s one of those guys who didn’t start, then he started, and then he didn’t play [much] for a little bit,” Jerome said. “But he just came out today on the biggest stage, and he was huge for us.”

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