The Virginia Cavaliers and the Virginia Tech Hokies are headed to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Virginia defeated Oklahoma, 63-51, and Virginia Tech outlasted Liberty, 67-58, in second-round games Sunday.
Virginia finally gets easy NCAA win 63-51 over Oklahoma
Virginia coach Tony Bennett made a last-minute change in his starting lineup and the top-seeded Cavaliers finally breezed through an NCAA Tournament game to make their first Sweet 16 in three years.
Bennett opted for Mamadi Diakite to start instead of Jack Salt against Oklahoma and the junior scored 14 points and had nine rebounds to lead the Cavaliers to a 63-51 win on Sunday night.
“Starting is big to me, it’s a big challenge,” Diakite said. "(Coach) is telling you, ‘OK, you have the responsibility to help the team, and we’re trusting you.’”
Virginia (31-3) has spent most of this season focused on improving from last year’s NCAA Tournament bust. The Cavaliers last season became the first overall No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 against UMBC, prompting motivational speeches from Bennett, who told them the pain of the unprecedented defeat was simply setting them up for amazing success down the road.
But the tournament opener against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb was shaky and Virginia trailed by as many as 14 before rallying for the first-round victory.
Diakite started the second half against Gardner-Webb and played well enough to convince Bennett he was had the mental toughness this Virginia team needs.
“To be able to handle adversity or a hard start, that’s a separator for a lot of players. He’s definitely coming in the right direction, and he was terrific,” Bennett said.
Diakite also made a difference on the defensive end. He matched up with Kristian Doolittle and held him to eight points on 4 of 10 shooting after the junior pushed Oklahoma into the second round with a 15-point performance against Mississippi.
“He made it really tough on me to get the shots I wanted,” Doolittle said.
There was only one scare for the Cavaliers in the second-round matchup and it was rather mild: Virginia scored the first seven points of the game, but Oklahoma (20-14) answered with a 13-2 run to take its only lead.
Virginia cranked up its trademark stifling defense and the Sooners hit just four of their last 18 shots in the first half to fall behind 31-22 at the break. After a Kihel Clark rebound and putback on the first possession of the second half, Virginia’s lead never dipped below 10 points again.
It was the first time Virginia hasn’t trailed in the second half of an NCAA Tournament game since beating Iowa State 84-71 in the Sweet 16 in 2016.
“It certainly felt good,” Bennett said.
Oklahoma shot 57.6 percent (34 of 59) to beat Mississippi by 23 in the first round, but the Sooners shot just 36.5 percent (19 of 52) on Sunday night.
Virginia’s win pushed all four No. 1 seeds into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016 — the last time the Cavaliers made it to the tournament’s second weekend.
“Everybody is talking about a Final Four. But I’ve never been to a Sweet 16,” said junior guard Ty Jerome, whose Cavaliers have been a top seed two of his three years.
Bennett said he told his team when they were down 14 in the first half to Gardner-Webb that they had to pound the ball inside. The lesson carried over to Sunday. Virginia had 32 points in the paint while Oklahoma scored just 12 inside. Bennett is trying to lead Virginia to its first Final Four in his 10 seasons with the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers play No. 12 seed Oregon in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Louisville.
Virginia Tech beats Liberty to earn a second trip to Sweet 16
The final seconds ticked down and the celebration began for Virginia Tech. The more than half-century wait for a return to the Sweet 16 was finally over.
The fourth-seeded Hokies advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in school history, knocking off 12th-seeded Liberty 67-58 in the second round of the East Region on Sunday.
“This moment is so big for us, so big for everybody in this program,” forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. said. “It’s been a long journey. So I’m glad to be here.”
Blackshear had 19 points and nine rebounds to lead Virginia Tech (25-8), which clamped down on defense in the second half to earn the win and a rematch with top-seeded Duke next week. The only other time the Hokies made it this far in the NCAAs came way back in 1967 when they won two games before losing to Dayton in the regional final of a 23-team tournament.
Ahmed Hill added 14 points and Justin Robinson scored 13 to help the Hokies beat an in-state rival and advance to face Duke.
Darius McGhee scored 15 points to lead Liberty (29-7), which won its first tournament game ever Friday against Mississippi State. Caleb Homesley was held to eight points on 3-for-11 shooting after scoring 30 points to fuel the first-round upset.
“They just executed a little bit better than we did,” Homesley said. “We executed plays but didn’t hit shots. When they executed plays, they hit the shots.”
Liberty looked to build on that breakthrough win and a 9-0 run early in the second half put the Flames up by five. The Hokies tightened up defensively after that and Liberty missed 11 of 12 shots from the field — with six of the misses from 3-point range. Liberty also committed four turnovers and trailed 56-49 after a layup by Nickel Alexander-Walker with about four minutes to go that capped an 11-0 run.
After Liberty made one free throw, Hill converted a three-point play off an inbound pass to extend the lead to nine points and the Hokies held on from there.
“I’m just excited to be able to play again with these guys,” Hill said. “I’m a senior and just all the work that has been put into the program just seems to be pouring out.”
Liberty started fast with McGhee hitting four 3-pointers in the first half — twice as many as he had in the previous seven games combined. The Flames built an eight-point lead in the half before the Hokies cut it to 32-29 at the break on a 3-pointer in the final seconds by Hill.
Liberty: Despite the loss, the season was a success for the Flames. They set a school-record for wins, won the Atlantic Sun tournament in their first year in the conference and won the first tournament game in school history after two losses to No. 1 seeds and another in a play-in game.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies made it through the first weekend of the tournament without a big contribution from star point guard Justin Robinson. The school’s all-time assists leader returned this week after missing 12 games with a foot injury.
Robinson looked a bit rusty in the first game but fared better Sunday. He shot 5-for-9 and had four assists in 29 minutes, including a key basket late after Liberty had cut the deficit to five points.
After making seven 3-pointers in the first half, the Flames went cold. They shot just 3 for 13 from long range and just 27 percent overall in the final 20 minutes.
“The first half they shot the ball about as good as you can. We had to make it a little bit tougher for them,” Hokies forward Ty Outlaw said. “They are a great team, they earned their spot here just like everybody else. We didn’t expect it to be easy. We just knew we had to step it up a little bit.”
Virginia Tech advanced to play No. 1 overall seed Duke in a rematch on Friday in Washington, D.C. The Hokies beat the Blue Devils 77-72 at home on Feb. 26 in a game Duke star freshman Zion Williamson and Robinson both missed with injuries.