Scott Fowler

One shining half: Gardner-Webb throws a scare into Virginia, but Cavaliers rebound

Gardner-Webb coach and players thank their fans

Watch portions of Gardner-Webb's press conference following their loss to Virginia in NCAA first round action Friday, March 22, 2019.
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Watch portions of Gardner-Webb's press conference following their loss to Virginia in NCAA first round action Friday, March 22, 2019.

Surely lightning couldn’t strike twice on a clear, sunny day in March. Surely Virginia couldn’t lose for a second straight year as a No. 1 seed to a No. 16 seed — in this case, plucky Gardner-Webb, the school from Boiling Springs, N.C., making its first appearance in the NCAA Division I tournament.

And no, we never did see that bolt of lightning. It took a while, but the Cavaliers did avert a second straight monumental embarrassment in the NCAA tournament, making up all of a 14-point, first-half deficit and winning, 71-56, over Gardner-Webb.

Yet it wasn’t as easy as that final score makes it sound. For more than a half there was some figurative thunder rumbling in the distance – Gardner-Webb led at halftime by six points and by double figures for much of the first half, playing beautiful basketball despite being overmatched athletically.

Early on, the Runnin’ Bulldogs kept forcing turnovers. They made every shot that was open and several that were not. The neutral fans in the crowd – many of them Duke fans awaiting the latest installment of “The Zion Williamson Show” in the nightcap – began screaming for Gardner-Webb. About half the town of Boiling Springs seemed to be in Columbia, and all those Gardner-Webb fans yelled from the pregame introductions onward and never sat down.

Gardner-Webb fans cheer on their team during the first half of the Runnin’ Bulldogs NCAA tournament game against Virginia Friday. Ethan Hyman

A worried-looking Tony Bennett called timeout at one juncture when his Virginia team got down by 12. By halftime, Gardner-Webb still led, 36-30, and the words “upset alert” were flashing around America.

In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, No. 1 seeds entered this March with a 135-1 all-time record against No. 16 seeds. The “one” was No. 16 seed UMBC’s startling, 20-point whipping of No. 1 Virginia in Charlotte last March. That game was on everyone’s minds inside Colonial Life Arena on Friday as Gardner-Webb, the Big South champion about an hour’s drive west of Charlotte, kept playing so well.

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But Virginia went 16-2 in the ACC and tied for the league’s regular-season title for a number of reasons. The Cavaliers began the second half with a 14-2 run in the first five minutes, grabbing a 44-38 lead. Their approach this time to a halftime deficit against a No. 16 seed was notably different from what it was in Charlotte, the Cavaliers said. This time, there was no yelling in the locker room, and no panic.

Said Virginia guard Ty Jerome: “I remember last year, halftime against UMBC, one of our coaches came in screaming at us (Bennett said it wasn’t him). We felt their panic last year at halftime. And that was one thing I remember — not doing a good job keeping everyone calm.”

In 2018, Virginia never recovered from its original shell shock against UMBC and never made a real run. “That will always be part of our story,” Bennett said. “I understand that. I’m sure a lot of people thought it was going to be part of our story the second year in a row.”

But there was no Chapter 2 on Friday. In the second half, Gardner-Webb not only couldn’t make a shot anymore, the Bulldogs often couldn’t even get one off. This time it was Virginia forcing all the turnovers, and the Cavaliers’ De’Andre Hunter (23 points) proving to be the player Gardner-Webb just couldn’t handle.

When it went away, it went away quickly. With 11:23 still to go in the game, Virginia had already extended its lead to 11 points and it would eventually grow to as many as 21. Gardner-Webb, after shooting 53.6 percent in the first half with four turnovers, shot 31.8 percent in the second half with 12 turnovers. Jose Perez led the Bulldogs with 19 points.

Said Gardner Webb’s DJ Laster of the experience: “Something I’ll never forget. Something I could tell my kids that I participated in.”

UMBC never let Virginia back into the game in 2018. Gardner-Webb did, and then the Cavaliers’ confidence returned. Virginia moved on, outscoring the Bulldogs 41-20 in the second half, and will play No. 9 seed Oklahoma Sunday in Columbia.

Gardner-Webb’s David Efianayi (11) drives by Virginia’s Kihei Clark (0) and Jack Salt (33) during the first half of Gardner-Webb’s game against Virginia Friday. Virginia won, 71-56. Ethan Hyman

Still, Gardner-Webb – where future basketball Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore once played center – sure put a scare in Virginia. For the entire first half, the Runnin’ Bulldogs had history in their grasp. And even when it slipped away, they acquitted themselves nobly.

“I’m just unbelievably proud of our team,” Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said.

Gardner-Webb got its one shining moment Friday. Really, it got one shining half.

And for a team making its first NCAA D-I tournament appearance, that will be 20 minutes neither Gardner-Webb’s players nor its fans will ever forget.

Check out photos from the Gardner-Webb Builldogs NCAA game against Virginia Friday, March 22, 2019.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”