COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Virginia isn't shying away from its historic loss to UMBC a year ago, when it became the first 1-seed to fall to a 16-seed in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. In fact, point guard Ty Jerome made it clear that no one needed to apologize for asking about it.
Back in the tournament as a No. 1 seed facing 16-seed Gardner-Webb, coach Tony Bennett and players explained how they used the 74-54 loss to the Retrievers as a source of motivation all season. If channeled properly, they said a setback like that could help them "go to a place you haven't been."
"It's a chip on our shoulder," said junior guard Kyle Guy. "But it doesn't define us."
"It's definitely helpful," Jerome said. "But you've got to be careful because you don't want to play with anger.
"You've got to be careful playing with anger."
Bennett, who won ACC Coach of the Year honors for the second year in a row, said his team "owned" the UMBC loss and is "attacking this year." He lauded his team's consistency, noting how they avoided bad weeks to finish 29-3 overall and 16-2 in conference play.
Virginia placed first in the powerhouse ACC during the regular season, which landed three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
"Now, that's a different kind of challenge than the tournament," Bennett warned.
On the eve of its first game in the tournament, Bennett said his message to his team was to control what it can control -- the respect it has for its opponent, Gardner-Webb, and how well the Cavaliers prepare for the game.
"Hopefully we're in a good spot and ready to play," he said.
Bennett said an ACC assistant called to tell him to be ready for how good Gardner-Webb will be on Friday. The Runnin' Bulldogs beat a pair of ACC teams this season. The coach's message, according to Bennett: "They can play."
"Of course we're going to be ready," Bennett said. "We understand that. When you get into this tournament, everybody can play."
Players noted how this feels like a different team than a year ago, thanks in large part to the addition of Braxton Key, who transferred from Alabama and leads the team with 5.5 rebounds per game.
De'Andre Hunter, who averaged 15.1 points and 5.0 rebounds this season, was injured and also didn't play against UMBC.
Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said it will take a team effort to hold Hunter down.
"He's a monster to defend," Craft said. "He's so good inside and out, really versatile. Both of those guys [D.J. Laster and Jose Perez]?will see him at times. We'll have other guys that will see him. We'll try to limit his ability to catch it close to the basket and then, like, give whoever's on him a lot of help, but he's a terrific player. We can't just guard him with one guy."
No. 1 Virginia and No. 16 Gardner-Webb will play each other at 3:10 p.m. on Friday.
The Cavaliers won't be able to avoid the memory of last year's loss to UMBC until then, but they're hoping that will change after tip-off.
"We're ready to put on a show this year so we can talk about something else," Guy said.