It wasn't until 27 seconds remained in the game that Virginia coach Tony Bennett looked up at the scoreboard and breathed a sigh of relief.
The Cavaliers seem rather determined to use the NCAA Tournament to put a tinge of gray in their sixth-year head coach's smooth black hair.
Malcolm Brogdon scored 22 points, Justin Anderson re-emerged as a scoring threat and second-seeded Virginia survived another opening-round scare, defeating 15th-seeded Belmont 79-67 on Friday in the round of 64.
Anderson, who is recovering from a broken left pinky, had 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting and Anthony Gill added 16 points for the Cavaliers (30-3), who recorded consecutive 30-win seasons for the first time in school history.
“I knew we were going to have to make some plays, get some stops and make some free throws,” Bennett said. “But you are never (comfortable) when you play a team like that that has big-play ability.”
Virginia made plenty of plays in the final 4 1/2 minutes, including all 11 free throw attempts.
Like last year when Virginia avoided a historic upset and held on to beat 16th-seeded Coastal Carolina, the Cavaliers needed a late second-half push to set up a rematch with No. 7 seed Michigan State on Sunday in the East Region. The Spartans knocked Virginia out of the Sweet 16 in last year's tournament.
Belmont (22-11) clawed within two behind 25 points from first-team Ohio Valley Conference selection Craig Bradshaw, but the Cavaliers outscored the Bruins 17-7 over the final 4:37 of the game.
Bennett said the Cavaliers were forced to guard Belmont in “unconventional ways” because of how they stretched the defense with several 3-point bombs from NBA range. At times, that led to some easy baskets and defensive breakdowns by Virginia, which came in with the nation's No. 1 scoring defense.
Anderson, playing with his pinky taped to his ring finger, scored for the first time since Feb. 7 against Louisville. He failed to score in two ACC Tournament games.
It felt good to show everybody, in a game, that I'm fine,” Anderson said.
The Cavaliers came into the NCAA Tournament having lost two of their last three games. They trailed 20-17 midway through the first half when Brogdon scored on a reverse layup igniting a 12-0 run.
Virginia stretched the lead to 14 points in the second half and appeared poised to pull away.
But Belmont wouldn't quit.
The emotionally charged and confident Bradshaw almost single-handedly closed the gap to 62-60 with 4:37 left behind consecutive 3-pointers, including one off the glass.
“At that point we were thinking we have to get stops,” Brogdon said. “We had to make him uncomfortable. I tried to pressure him and get the ball out of his hands and swipe at the ball.”
The Cavaliers did just enough, never surrendering the lead.
London Perrantes hit a jumper from just inside the 3-point arc to make it a two-possession game and Gill made two free throws to give the Cavaliers some breathing room. Gill then scored on a give-and-go layup from Perrantes and drew a foul to push the lead to nine.
Gill had 13 points in the second half.
“It was good for us to be in a game like that,” Bennett said. “Our young men have been in a lot of games like that where we had to just outlast and stay in there and make some plays and even overcome some of our mistakes.”
Bradshaw would finish 5 of 9 from 3-point range and had 15 points in the second half.
“He's fearless and loves situations like that,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “Who he is playing against and circumstances matter not to him. He's athletic enough and good enough to play against a Virginia. ... We don't get ACC level players often, and he's at that (level).”