Wahoos wiggle free of burden, do what they're supposed to do

Game Highlights

It was all about attitude.

How would the 'Hoos look out of the gate? The answer: timid.

We all knew Gardner-Webb was going to be one of the most emboldened No. 16 seeds in history. And why not? When UMBC shocked the world last season, it opened the door for other 16 seeds to shoot for the stars. Just look at North Dakota State and Iona pushing Duke and North Carolina, respectively, on Friday. Plus, G-W was essentially playing on a home floor at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C., just two hours from its campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., with the G-W fans ready to see another repeat of 2018. And if you were in the crowd and not clad in orange and blue, you were pulling for the Runnin' Bulldogs.

But once the Cavaliers got their heads on straight, the game was over, and they advanced to Sunday's second round with a 71-56 victory over Gardner-Webb. Next up is Oklahoma, an impressive 95-72 winner over Ole Miss.

Early on, the pressure was getting to Virginia. I'm sure that the players were taking G-W seriously -- how could they not after last season? -- but it is one thing to respect the opponent, and another to be ready for the mental weight of the game. And this was the most pressure on a No. 1 seed in history. A second consecutive loss to a No. 16 seed would have further damaged Virginia's reputation in the postseason, but could have also had further-reaching consequences for the program overall. But eventually, Virginia realized it was the better team and played like it. The offense spaced the floor, the sloppiness decreased, the defense made some tweaks as we detailed in the podcast, and the superior talent took over.

To the Cavaliers' credit, I never saw panic, even when they got down 30-16. The team panicked during last season's upset, but not Friday. And it may have helped that G-W actually got out to a double-digit lead in the first half and not the second half. I think being tied at 19 last season at the break against UMBC lulled UVa to sleep. The players may have thought they'd just take over in the second half. But on Friday, it was like, welp, if we don't get our butts in gear right now, we might lose by more than 20. So they shifted into high gear near the end of the first half and cut the lead to six, as opposed to getting down 14 with 14 minutes left in the game and panicking. In the postgame news conference, Ty Jerome said that last season at the half, an assistant coach came into the locker room screaming at them. This year, the atmosphere was much calmer. And that seemed to trickle down through all the players. Be confident, be bold, don't panic, we got this.

Instead of folding and wilting like I'm sure many in college basketball wanted to see happen, the Cavaliers got aggressive. De'Andre Hunter (game-high 23 points) was like, "Oh, I'm the best player on the floor and a probable top-10 NBA draft pick, and I'm going to show it." Mamadi Diakite (17 points, nine rebounds) started finishing better around the rim and was a beast on the glass (though I still want to scream at him, "Dunk the ball!" sometimes). Kihei Clark was a pest on defense with three steals and hit the key 3 with under a minute remaining in the first half that made the score 36-30. He also made some great hustle plays and came up with five boards. Jerome (13 points, 2 of 6 on 3s, six assists, four turnovers, three steals) rediscovered some of his swagger in the second half after being mostly MIA in the first. Braxton Key played 11 valuable minutes and provided great defense (two steals) and rebounding (three boards) and made both of his shots, including a 3. The 30-16 score came at the 6:42 mark of the first half, but from there, Virginia outscored G-W, 55-26.

And all of that happened with Kyle Guy not even heating up. G-W followed him all around the court like his social media criticizers follow him on Twitter. Indeed, he had just eight points, making only 1 of 5 attempts from beyond the arc. UVa made seven triples, but needed 23 attempts to make them. The Bulldogs were better beyond the arc, 9 of 23, with Jose Perez finishing 4 of 6 and leading the team with 19 points.

So imagine what this team is capable of if it was aggressive the entire game and hot from 3? We've seen the ceiling of this team -- in demolitions of top-10 Florida State and Virginia Tech teams and in the second halves of games at Louisville and Syracuse, among other stretches -- it is definitely capable of winning the national championship. How often do the players reach their potential? It's all in front of them now. They can only stop themselves. And now that the historical amount of pressure has subsided, the players can simply play. Yes, it would be disappointing to lose Sunday, or even before the Final Four, but not as devastating. But I think the Wahoos are going to play loose and relaxed.

That was the hope Friday, and they finally got there. But it took some time to settle in and say, "Enough! Time to take over." It took some soul-searching and the realization that it was time to get a little nasty and take care of business. History was not going to happen again on their watch.

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