Things weren’t looking good for Virginia early on Thursday. The no. 5 seed Cavaliers were trailing no. 12 seed UNC Wilmington, one of the chic picks to pull a first-round upset, by a score of 28–14 with less than seven minutes left in the first half. It wasn’t just the margin, though; it was the way they were losing. Wilmington was playing like the more athletic team, using a full-court press to hound Virginia up the floor in an effort to speed up the tempo of the game, and then running pick-and-rolls and crashing the offensive glass. UVA was bigger and slower, and its renowned defense (ranked no. 1 in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric) looked like it couldn’t keep up with Wilmington and the way it was spreading the floor.
However, one of the benefits of being a higher-seeded team from a power conference is the players you can bring off the bench. Virginia was able to secure a 76–71 win thanks largely to the play of reserve wing Marial Shayok, who had 23 points, three rebounds, two steals, and one assist on 8-of-14 shooting. Shayok and senior point guard London Perrantes combined to score 47 points; no one else on the Cavaliers made more than two shots from the field.
At 6-foot-5 and 196 pounds, Shayok has the size and athleticism to be an NBA wing. He shot only 30 percent from 3 for the season, but was 3-for-5 from beyond the arc on Thursday, hitting big shot after big shot whenever the game got close. Shayok sealed things in the final seconds, when he hit a step-back jumper off the glass to give UVA a four-point lead. When he raised up for a shot, no one on Wilmington could really contest it.
He was just as impactful on defense, helping to lock up Chris Flemmings, Wilmington’s second-leading scorer. At 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, Flemmings was dominant against Colonial Athletic Association competition, but he wasn’t used to going up against a guy who was bigger and faster than him. While Flemmings finished with 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting, he had to take a lot of difficult shots and wasn’t able to control the game in the way the best player on a lower-seeded team needs to in order to seal an upset. Shayok was also just about as tall as Wilmington’s center, Devontae Cacok (6-foot-7 and 240 pounds), allowing him to switch screens with impunity and serve as the second line of defense when Cacok was rolling to the rim.
Traditionally, the difference-maker for higher-seeded teams in the NCAA tournament is the big man, since few mid-major squads are able to recruit good players who are 6-foot-9 or taller. UVA got almost nothing from Jack Salt, its 6-foot-11 starting center, a slow-footed Leviathan who couldn’t deal with Wilmington’s guards when they were coming off screens and didn’t have the skill to take advantage of his size around the basket. Virginia head coach Tony Bennett went small a lot in the second half, taking Salt off the floor to play a faster lineup that could keep up with Wilmington.
Playing small can sometimes play into the hands of Cinderella, so the key is to play small while also staying big. That’s what having a wing with Shayok’s size and athleticism allowed Virginia to do. In the future, if you are looking for the high-major team that might get upset in the first round, try to find one that doesn’t have a wing with NBA potential. Those are the types of players for whom even a really good mid-major team like UNC Wilmington doesn’t have an answer.