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NCAA tournament: Virginia’s sequel to first-round horror show has happier ending this year

Virginia guard Kyle Guy (5) and Ty Jerome (11) celebrate after a score against Gardner-Webb during a
Virginia guard Kyle Guy (5) and Ty Jerome (11) celebrate after a score against Gardner-Webb.
(Sean Rayford / Associated Press)

Every successful horror movie has a sequel.

For the members of the University of Virginia basketball team, theirs came Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A year after the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16, it almost happened again.

Top-seeded Virginia was down 14 points in the first half against Gardner-Webb before rallying in the second to escape with a 71-56 victory in a South Regional opener.

Gardner-Webb, which has an enrollment of 2,200 and is located in Boiling Springs, N.C., sounds like an accounting firm, more CPA than NBA. But the Runnin’ Bulldogs gave Virginia all it could handle before intermission.

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The Cavaliers, who trailed by six at halftime, opened the second half with a 25-5 run and forced 11 turnovers by Gardner-Webb in the first 12 minutes.

“We started to break down defensively and started to give up stuff we didn’t give up in the first half,” Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said.

In the end, Virginia survived and will play No. 9 seed Oklahoma in the second round Sunday. Despite being a top seed in four of the past six tournaments, the Cavaliers have yet to reach of the Final Four under coach Tony Bennett.

Bennett said he and his staff were careful not to repeat the mistakes of last year’s 74-54 loss to Maryland Baltimore County, when the Cavaliers’ coaches were wound ultra-tight at halftime.

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The Cavaliers were outscored by 20 in the second half of last year’s game, but outscored Gardner-Webb by 21 in the second half this time.

“It was a different halftime than last time,” Bennett said. “It was just the ability because I thought we had fought back, as I mentioned, at the end of the first half, to get ourselves in a spot where there was a lot of basketball left. It was one thing I said to my staff, and we just talked right before we went in there. I said, ‘Uplift them,’ and we talked about don’t panic, but play with fight, because that’s what got them back in.”

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Taking the fifth -- Pity the No. 5 seeds.

Three of the four were toppled by 12 seeds in the opening round, with Liberty beating Mississippi State, Murray State knocking off Marquette, and Oregon defeating Wisconsin. Auburn, which beat New Mexico State, was the only No. 5 to advance.

It’s not unheard of for 12 seeds to have that kind of success. A trio of them also won first-round games in 2014, 2013, 2009 and 2002.

And for those behind the 8-ball, all four No. 9 seeds beat the No. 8s.

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Easy money – Top-seeded Duke glided through the first round with an 85-62 victory over North Dakota State. So what else is new? As noted by ESPN Stats & Info, the Blue Devils are 30-4 in Round of 64 games under coach Mike Krzyzewski, including 14-0 as a No. 1 seed.

“We’ve been the leader of the pack for about 25 years, so we get everyone’s best shot,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s the toughest thing. Our guys need to be ready for that each time.”

Duke forwards Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett made history in the game, becoming the first freshmen teammates to both score at least 25 points in an NCAA tournament game. Williamson scored 25; Barrett had 26.

“I remember watching March Madness, like live-streaming it in high school and middle school, just watching the intense games and telling myself I was going to be a part of that,” Williamson said. “So I think last night, when I was sitting in my hotel room, I’m like, wow, I’m actually here. It’s very exciting. But you’ve got to put the excitement aside and just go out there and try to get the win.”

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Tall tale – Every tournament team has some towering players, but no one matches Central Florida center Tacko Fall, who stands 7 feet 6 and weighs 310 pounds. He’s the tallest player in college basketball, and an inch shorter than the late Manute Bol, the tallest man to play in the NBA.

CBS Sports’ Tracy Wolfson, who is 5-2, looked comically small standing next to him, especially when they compared shoe sizes. She wears a 6; he wears size 22. He had 13 points and 18 rebounds in the Knights’ first-round victory over Virginia Commonwealth.

Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall was born and raised in Senegal. He grew up playing soccer and didn’t start playing basketball until he moved to the U.S. at age 16. Initially, he disliked the sport because basketball games disrupted his TV time.

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“My grandma was the one that used to love basketball,” Fall said in a 2017 interview with ESPN. “Like five o’clock, our channel had cartoons. But some days, they had basketball games. My grandma would want to watch those games. I would want to watch cartoons. So I used to hate it back then. I just didn’t understand it, and I just wanted to watch my cartoons.”

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Cinderella City – San Jose was Upset Central on Friday, with wins by two 12 seeds (Oregon and Liberty), and a 13 (UC Irvine).

Because the second round features Oregon versus Irvine, ESPN notes, that ensures a double-digit seed will make the Sweet 16 for the 12th consecutive season.

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Banding together – Those weren’t Ivy League students wearing the blue Yale sweaters and playing the school’s fight song as the Bulldogs played Louisiana State in a first-round game.

Because the Yale band didn’t accompany the basketball team to Jacksonville for the game, the University of North Florida band happily agreed to fill in, donning Yale garb and all.

“I think about half the fans don’t know we’re not from Yale,” UNF flutist Rachel Gomez told the Florida Times-Union. “So it’s fun.”

Yale wound up losing, but its adopted band had a blast.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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