Runnin' Bulldogs twice led by 14 points in the first half before top-seeded Cavaliers finish strong to end Gardner-Webb's first NCAA Tournament appearance

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Even the most supportive Gardner-Webb basketball fan would've been surprised by how the Runnin' Bulldogs started their NCAA Tournament debut against top-seeded Virginia.

Gardner-Webb didn't trail until early in the second half — and twice led by 14 points — before Virginia justified its high seeding with a near perfect second half performance for a 71-56 first-round win on Friday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena.

"Gardner-Webb's good," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of a Runnin' Bulldogs team that led his Cavaliers late in the first half. "They move hard. They're quick. We understood that. They had a great (fan) backing. You could feel that.

"I'm just glad I'm up here feeling a little better than ... last year."

Gardner-Webb finished its historic season with a 23-12 overall record and the Runnin' Bulldogs became the first team in the school's 17-year NCAA Division I history to win 20 games in the regular season, finish unbeaten at home (13-0 this season) and win a league tournament title to advance to a first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

And Gardner-Webb did so by throwing a scare into a Virginia team that had to be fragile after losing 74-54 to 16-seed UMBC last year in the first round at Charlotte's Spectrum Center.

A No. 16 seed this year, Gardner-Webb was trying to repeat that upset feat.

And for more than a half, the Runnin' Bulldogs had the Cavaliers on their heels as a crowd of 15,417 howled its approval. Gardner-Webb officials estimated their school's fans purchased 1,500 tickets and many others in the sellout crowd were clearly rooting for an upset.

In fact, Virginia didn't take a lead in the game until 16:16 was left in the second half after taking the game's momentum late in the first half.

"We had a couple of days to prepare," Gardner-Webb senior Brandon Miller said. "Practice was crazy good — a lot of guys communicating and talking. At the end of the day, we wanted to win. We didn't really care about anything else but winning."

Gardner-Webb scored on 14 of its first 21 possessions to take command as Jose Perez (19 points), David Efianayi (12 points) and D.J. Laster (10 points) took turns punishing Virginia's vaunted defense.

"At the beginning of the first half, our fans really had us going — and we fed off their energy," Laster said.

But the Cavaliers avoided the "panic" they say they felt in last year's upset loss and righted themselves enough to cut Gardner-Webb's lead to 36-30 at halftime.

"The first thing is we came into this game knowing real well we were going to be in for a battle," said Virginia's Ty Jerome, whose 30-3 team advances to play Oklahoma in Sunday's second round. "So we came into this game knowing how capable Gardner-Webb was going to be.

"They punched us in the mouth. ... It's just about doing what we do, staying united, not looking around and staying in the moment."

Jerome, a junior guard, said his team definitely handled the halftime deficit better this year than last.

"We felt their panic last year at halftime," Jerome said of his coaches. "And that was one thing I remember — not doing a good job keeping everyone calm."

Whatever Jerome did and Bennett prompted his team to do, the Cavaliers came out with laser focus in the second half that Gardner-Webb couldn't overcome.

After trailing 30-16 with 6:45 left in the first half, Virginia outscored the Runnin' Bulldogs 39-11 over the next 15 1-2 minutes to take a 55-41 lead halfway through the second half.

"I really thought that first four minutes (of the second half) was going to be critical, whichever way it went," Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said. "If we were able to make a run there early, maybe we put a little pressure on them, but that didn't happen.

"They made a couple of baskets and we struggled to score and had some bad offensive possessions, then we started to break down defensively. We started to give up what we didn't give up in the first half."

Richard Walker: 704-869-1843; twitter.com/jrwalk22