A 15-point lead disappeared before halftime, but UNC-Wilmington didn’t go away nearly as quickly Thursday afternoon, chasing fifth-seeded Virginia to the final minute before falling 76-71 in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Amway Center in Orlando.
“We’re disappointed, but when we walk out of here, we’re going to walk out with our heads high, because the effort these guys have given me all year has been unbelievable,” said UNCW coach Kevin Keatts, whose team went 29-6 and nearly pulled off another of the tournament’s famed 12/5 upsets.
Down 10 with eight minutes to play, the No. 15-seed Seahawks pulled to within two points with 1:16 to play, getting 10 straight points from junior guard Chris Flemmings, who finished with a team-high 18. A shot from freshman forward Devontae Cacok -- who finished with 12 points and 15 rebounds -- again pulled them within two with 0:53 left, but No. 2-seed Virginia’s Marial Shayok, a 6-5, 196-pound junior guard, answered with 25 seconds left, and Virginia held on for the win.
“I just didn’t want to go out like that, and I knew my teammates didn’t, either,” said Shayok, who reset his career high with 23 points. “I just wanted to come out and provide what I could on both ends and just bring a spark.”
It’s the second year in a row the Seahawks have given an ACC team a scare in the opening round -- they led fourth-seeded Duke at halftime last year, but couldn’t stay close and lost 93-85. With Thursday’s loss, UNCW drops to 1-6 all-time in the NCAA tournament and 2-38 all-time against ACC opponents.
“Our guys expected to win the game,” Keatts said. “I think you take a couple of free throws out of it, take a couple of chippy plays ... two or three of those freaky plays, we might be in another situation.”
The Cavaliers (23-10), who got 24 from senior guard London Perrantes, advance to face the winner of Thursday’s Florida-East Tennessee State game on Saturday.
UNCW hit six three-pointers -- senior guards Ambrose Mosely and Denzel Ingram were a combined 6-for-7 in the first half -- in jumping out to a 26-11 lead. But Virginia was able to answer, ending the half on a 16-1 run to lead 30-29 at the break.
The Seahawks’ leading scorer, sophomore guard C.J. Bryce, went 0-for-6 in the first half and finished the game with eight points.
UNCW forced Virginia into a four-guard look -- even five during brief parts of the second half -- and limited its own mistakes. UNCW had only two turnovers in the first half, and had none in the game’s final minutes until Ingram had a bad pass with 15 seconds left, his only turnover of the game.
“It was a scrambled game,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We knew we were going to have to play four guards ... these guys came up and made big plays.”
Virginia got to the free-throw line 21 times in the second half, and made just enough (14) to win in the first round of the NCAAs for the fourth year in a row. Last year, the Cavaliers made it to the Elite 8 before falling to Syracuse, and Bennett was happy to survive another two days with a hard-fought win.
“They’re a hard team to play against,” he said. “You’ll have a lot of questions, but that’s March Madness. That’s the way it is. The way we were down and fought back, we kept steady.”