Virginia’s 71-56 win over Gardner-Webb on Friday was many things: inspired, improbable, and above all else, program-changing. Had Virginia lost in the NCAA tournament to a no. 16 seed for the second consecutive season, head coach Tony Bennett would have been fired on the spot. (Hey, I don’t make the rules.) Junior standouts Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome would’ve been immediately absorbed into the transfer portal. Virginia basketball would have been relegated to Division III, via the never-before-applicable What the Hell, Those Were No. 16 Seeds bylaw. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of this game for Virginia. Yet after trailing by as many as 14 points in the first half and going into the break down 36-30, the Cavaliers stormed back to topple an imposing college basketball juggernaut and advance to Saturday’s second-round matchup against Oklahoma.
Last year, Virginia’s men’s basketball season ended in embarrassment, as Bennett’s squad fell to 16th-seeded University of Maryland-Baltimore County, becoming the first no. 1 seed in tourney history to lose to a no. 16 seed. (No. 1 seeds were previously 135-0 against no. 16 seeds.) It was a devastating blow for Bennett, who had garnered national acclaim while building the Hoos into one of the most consistent programs in the country. The Cavaliers entered 2018 March Madness with a record of 31-2, and then were utterly humiliated by the Retrievers. Virginia would’ve been cancelled if it had succumbed at the hands (paws?) of the Runnin’ Bulldogs this time.
But this team persevered! Nobody believed in the Cavaliers, but they did it! Sure, they went 29-3 and were named a no. 1 seed for the third time in four years. But who among us isn’t rendered helpless in the face of a pack of (jogging? wobbling?) bulldogs? Out of the gate, the Hoos’ offense—the second-most efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom—was missing open looks, both at the rim and from the perimeter. On the other end of the floor, the Cavaliers’ typically stifling defense was being ripped apart by the third-best team in the Big South Conference.
After halftime, though, Virginia rolled. It outscored Gardner-Webb by 21 points in the final 20 minutes. Future NBA draft pick De’Andre Hunter led all scorers with 23 points. The person who runs the Gardner-Webb athletic department Twitter account avoided undue stress.
Years from now, when we look back on the history of college basketball, this game will be brought up as a flashbulb moment—both for Virginia and the sport at large. On December 23, 1982, the Cavaliers lost to Chaminade. On March 16, 2018, they lost to UMBC. And on March 22, 2019, they rallied to beat Gardner-Webb. In an era in which Texas A&M stormed back from a 12-point deficit in 44.3 seconds, this was arguably the greatest comeback story in NCAA history. You simply couldn’t script a better story.