COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — 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.
Oklahoma lost five in a row in the Big 12 and looked to be out of the tournament before winning four of its next five to salvage the season.
“You would like to go through and win them all, but when you get to that point where you’re down and out a little bit, to respond is a pretty good challenge and a pretty good test of their character and their togetherness,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
Oklahoma: Picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 after one-and-done NBA rookie sensation Trae Young left, the Sooners overachieved to make it to the NCAA Tournament second round.
Virginia: 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.
Virginia: The Cavaliers play the winner of No. 12 seed Oregon and No. 13 seed UC-Irvine in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Louisville.