Virginia coach Tony Bennett earned his first ACC win in the Cavaliers’ conference opener at N.C. State.
Overcoming a 10-point second-half deficit. Taking care of the ball, knocking down free throws, and making the opponent earn points down the stretch. Getting the ball to Virginia’s stars and having them convert. Winning the turnover and rebounding battles. Overall, taking a win on the road at a place Virginia had won only twice times in the previous 11 trips.
Not a bad conference debut for Virginia coach Tony Bennett.
Down 10 with less than 13 minutes remaining in regulation, the Cavaliers didn’t appear to have much life against N.C. State on the road. But, thanks to some poor shooting by the Pack and a wealth of poise down the stretch for Virginia, the Hoos fought back to win their conference opener 70-62 at the RBC Center.
“The guys really fought back, they were resilient. They came up with some stops,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t perfect, that certainly wasn’t the case. But they made big plays, made free throws, came up with stops, and didn’t get too flustered when you can kind of have a decision to make at certain points of the game – which way are we going to go? Are we going to try and get into this thing play by play, or are we going to try and hit a home run? I thought guys kept their composure.”
Bennett has preached that defense is what he wants to keep his teams in games, and that is largely what put Virginia back within striking distance. After the Pack stretched their lead to 42-32, they went on to convert just three of their next 11 shots and committed three turnovers over the next 11 minutes. The Virginia offense, meanwhile, rallied behind Mike Scott, Sylven Landesberg , and some in-rhythm perimeter shooting, and Virginia found itself holding a 60-55 lead with 1:50 remaining.
“I said, ‘Just don’t have the [defensive] breakdowns,'” Bennett said. “There was one breakdown – and I got Mike out – they set a double back-screen and they laid it in at the front of the rim, and we didn’t get any help on it, and that was discouraging. I said, ‘Look fellas, this has to be that they’ve got to earn it. You can’t have these breakdowns, or we’re not going to be able to come back.’ And then, the easy looks went away the rest of the game – they had to earn when they made them.”
Mike Scott scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, and added seven rebounds.
Scott said he didn’t feel any effects of his sprained ankle suffered in early December, and it showed in the second half as he dueled N.C. State’s Tracy Smith on both ends of the floor. The junior scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, usually with Smith guarding him inside. And, though Smith led the Pack with 18 points, Scott made every catch and every shot difficult for Smith, putting Sidney Lowe’s offense out of its comfort zone as Virginia mounted a comeback.
The dominant second half from Scott was prompted by assistant coach Ron Sanchez, Scott said, after the power forward settled chiefly for off-balance, perimeter jump shots en route to just two first-half points. The second period was a much more aggressive half for Scott, as he attacked the rim and the glass to earn his crucial second-half production.
“Coach Sanchez really got on me at halftime, taking shots by not playing through the offense, taking a lot of quick shots,” Scott said. “I had bigger defenders, so I could drive it to the basket – I knew I was a lot quicker than them – and I was just shooting a lot of off-balance shots.”
“We want him going at the rim more than falling away,” Bennett said. “He’s got a decent shot, so if he can get his feet set and it’s a 15, 16-footer, he can take that, but he’s got to know where’s his bread-and-butter, so to speak. He’s got to be able to get post-ups or drives, and use the versatility that he has.”
Landesberg started the conference slate with some typically dazzling finishes at the rim, finishing with an efficient 23 points to lead all scorers on 7-of-14 shooting. Sammy Zeglinski and Jeff Jones supported the offense with perimeter shooting, combining to convert all four of their 3-point attempts. The Cavaliers also got nice minutes from center Jerome Meyinsse , who scored an ACC-career high six points and collected five rebounds and two blocks in 18 minutes. Meyinsse also guarded Smith for much of the first half, and, like Scott, did not let Smith get easy buckets – toward the end of the period, Virginia even elected not to double Smith on the block with Meyinsse guarding him, and the senior performed admirably.
As much as Virginia fans would wish to fully credit Bennett and Virginia for the season-opening win, however, it must be noted that the Wolfpack shot themselves in the foot as well. As Virginia shot 19-20 from the foul line – a season-high 95 percent – the Pack shot just 16-26. In particular, the Pack missed four of six free throws after leading by 10, shots that could have put the game out of Virginia’s reach.
And, though Smith had an outstanding night as the focal point of the Wolfpack offense, he missed two crucial layups late – and, as so often happens in college basketball, they resulted in offense for Virginia at a critical juncture of the game. The first miss came on an alley-oop attempt with 6:31 remaining, and Smith then fouled Scott on the rebound; Scott converted both free throws on a one-and-one trip to give Virginia its first lead. After the Pack went on another burst to a four-point advantage, Smith missed his second lay-up with just less than five minutes remaining; 11 seconds later, Zeglinski drove baseline and executed perhaps the pass of the game – a bounce pass from under the basket to Jones at the top of the key – and Jones buried the open three to bring Virginia within one.
Virginia’s Mustapha Farrakhan then anticipated a pass from C.J. Williams to come up with a steal. On the ensuing Cavalier possession, Landesberg found an opening to the basket and missed the lay-up, but Scott followed with a tip-in to give the Hoos a 55-54 lead – an advantage that the Hoos did not relinquish, as they continued to sink free throws down the stretch.
Saturday’s game was a welcome lift for Virginia, as it came off its worst outing of the season in its previous game against Texas Pan-American despite a 19-point victory. N.C. State, however, was picked 12th in the ACC preseason poll by the media, one spot below Virginia. The competition will again be amped up this Wednesday at the John Paul Jones Arena, as Virginia takes on Georgia Tech and its daunting frontcourt of Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors, each of whom is averaging nearly a double-double. The Yellow Jackets proved that they are an elite team in the conference Saturday, opening its conference slate with a victory against No. 5 Duke.
Bennett’s message to his team, however, will likely be the same as it was on Saturday.
“My thing with them today was, play with authority on both ends of the floor, and don’t change who you are,” Bennett said. “I heard Nick Saban say after the championship game, he told his team leading up to it, ‘Do what you do and be who you are.’ Because you step into ACC ball, all of a sudden we can’t be someone we’re not used to, and change. We just have to keep grinding, keep getting good looks, and keep working our fannies off at the defensive end.”