Virginia’s Assane Sene led the team with 11 rebounds.
It had been 21 days since Virginia fans had seen the men’s basketball team in the John Paul Jones Arena. Two weeks since they had seen the Cavaliers period. The Hoos’ return to action on their home floor brought some changes in a sluggish, even by post-exam break standards, victory against NJIT on Monday night, 68-37.
“It was good to get back, especially after getting the [UNC-Wilmington] game cancelled. We haven’t been in JPJ in 21 days since we played Penn State, so it feels like a long time certainly,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “We were rusty but our defense got stronger as the game wore on and they certainly missed some shots, but we challenged them to be as sharp as they can and bring some energy and effort. That’s hard when you haven’t played in that long, but we’ll be back at it again soon and we will have to be ready.”
Virginia’s defense certainly gave the Highlanders fits statistically. The visitors shot just 27.1% for the game, committed 14 turnovers with just 8 assists, and finished with 37 points. NJIT’s 13 made FGs is tied for the fourth lowest total allowed by the Cavaliers since 1953. The 37 points set a new arena low and tied for the second-lowest points allowed by the Hoos in the shot clock era. Only one player, Jheryl Wilson, broke into double figures with 11 points.
NJIT coach Jim Engles knew that UVa’s defense would present a challenge.
“The fact that the Bennett name basically signifies defense. And one of our worst things right now is our offense. We have a very hard time scoring. He could probably buy a couple snow blowers with the money I have spent on his defensive videos,” Engles said. “I was worried about that. I know they defend very well and I’ve watched their games – they play a pretty good schedule and have held some people down.”
The games that Engles watched, of course, featured a Virginia team with a different look. With Mike Scott sidelined with a high ankle sprain and two weeks of practice sandwiched around exams, the Cavaliers (5-4) took the floor with a different set of starters and more minutes for a pair of players with defensive reputations. The starting line-up featured Sammy Zeglinski, Sylven Landesberg , Calvin Baker, Will Sherrill and Assane Sene . It was the first start of the season for Baker and Sene and just the second start for Sherrill.
Bennett said the two-week break from games allowed him to take a close look at practices where the coaching staff decided to focus on competitive balanced teams when looking at head-to-head action. That’s where Baker, who posted 9 points, 1 assist and 1 steal on Monday, established himself as the starting option over the likes of Jeff Jones and Mustapha Farrakhan , who had started 10 combined times in the previous eight games.
“I felt like Sylven and Sammy established themselves [as starters so far this season], but I was looking for that other spot. Calvin did a good job in the two weeks of practice where he really stepped up and led,” Bennett said. “He was real vocal and did a lot of the intangibles and I wanted to reward him for that.”
The biggest change of the night, however, was in the minutes distributed to Sene and freshman Jontel Evans , a pair of players with heady defensive reputations. Sene, of course, established himself as a shot-blocking threat last season as a freshman while Evans entered UVa with a rep as a tenacious on-ball defender. Both made the most of the opportunity.
Jontel Evans did not commit a turnover in 23 minutes.
Sene logged a team-high 28 minutes (he averaged just 13.0 minutes in the first eight games) and registered 4 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 assist and 1 steal. He did miss two dunks, though he was fouled on one attempt. In the first half, he showed a solid post move but missed the shot falling away. And, perhaps, most importantly, he had just two fouls. The 7-foot sophomore said it was good to be on the floor for extended minutes and that staying out of foul trouble is something he is focusing on as the season grows older.
“When you’re on the bench, you learn a lot from the bench and also from last year because last year was my first year in the college game and I used to make a lot of fouls,” Sene said. “This year, I said I know my team needs me a lot and I need to make sure not to have foul trouble. I just play smarter and be more alert on defense and stuff like that, always be ready and in a stance and things like that.”
Evans, meanwhile, checked in for 23 minutes (he averaged just 8.8 minutes in the first eight games) and delivered an impressive stat line with career highs in points and rebounds. In total, Evans recorded 7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 0 turnovers. He made 3 of 4 shots and committed just 1 foul. Bennett said Evans provided a spark for the team and extended the pick-up point (where the ball is first defended) for the team’s defense. The latter is an important note considering the focus placed on ‘heating up the ball’ in Bennett’s defensive system.
“I really watched practice closely – I think you have to do that when you have a balance of guys that you’re having a hard time determining who gets more minutes or who should play – and he showed that against Auburn, practices before that, and he’s done a nice job in the two weeks of practice leading up to this game and it showed,” Bennett said. “I don’t get too caught up in the stat line but that is a good stat line.”