Mike Scott and the Hoos put together a strong effort in the win against GT.
Prior to the midway point of the Virginia men’s basketball season, new coach Tony Bennett already has led Virginia to a landmark that it hadn’t reached in over a decade. And the best news for Wahoo fans is the landmark category: wins.
With the Cavaliers’ 82-75 victory against No. 20 Georgia Tech at the John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday, Virginia is now 2-0 in the ACC for the first time since the 1994-95 season – back when now-UVa assistant coach Jason Williford captained the team. The Hoos also improved to 2-0 against ranked opponents (GT and UAB), and recorded their sixth consecutive win and 10th overall, already matching their total number of wins in the 2008-09 season.
Getting to 2-0 is impressive. The Ramblin’ Wreck had just upset Duke. Virginia’s reputably thin frontcourt wasn’t supposed to be able to contain the most complete frontcourt in the ACC. And if the Jackets were going to put up 75 points, few would have thought that the Cavaliers’ drought-prone offense could keep up.
But, the Hoos did all of that, and then some. They won the rebounding battle – in particular, on the offensive glass (15-12). They had fewer turnovers (11-7) and more assists (17-15). They shot 44.3% from the field. For the second straight game, they nailed free throws when their opponent couldn’t – UVa shot 23 of 26, while GT hit 3 of 11. And, for the second straight game, Virginia showed more poise than its opponent in the stretch run as it pulled away to a victory.
“This was really a team win, because everybody contributed,” guard Sammy Zeglinski said.
Zeglinski’s quote, indeed, is telling, as contributions came from numerous names on the roster. Sylven Landesberg had a complete game of 22 points, 5 assists, and 6 rebounds. Mustapha Farrakhan had perhaps the most complete game of his career, ending with 15 points, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 0 turnovers in 23 minutes. Jerome Meyinsse , Mike Scott, and Assane Sene each grabbed six boards, and each in their own way made life difficult on the block for the Jackets’ talented frontcourt. Both Jeff Jones and Zeglinski made timely 3’s for the second consecutive game.
There was perhaps no bigger possession for Virginia – and none that better exemplified the Cavaliers’ complete offensive game – than the one that began with 3:39 remaining and ended with a 3-ball from Zeglinski one-and-a-half minutes of game time later. With Virginia up six, the Hoos obviously wanted to burn some clock – and they did, running the shot clock down to one before Landesberg pulled up for a jumper, which fell off the rim. Meyinsse, though, pulled down a strong rebound in the lane, and even managed to elude traffic with a few dribbles out to the top of the key before finding a guard to reset the possession.
“I knew they were coming behind me, so I knew I had to pick [my dribble] up eventually,” Meyinsse said with a laugh. “Luckily, it kept the possession.”
Mustapha Farrakhan had a solid performance with 15 points, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 0 turnovers.
Meyinsse then received a post entry a few steps off the block, made a strong move to the basket, and was fouled in the lane after the Cavs had burned another 27 seconds. The senior missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity but one of the few misses on the night at the line turned into a positive for Virginia, as Landesberg pulled down the long rebound.
The Cavaliers ran down another 34 seconds off the clock with ball movement before putting up another shot. This time, it was Landesberg making a pass out to Zeglinski on the wing. And, Zeglinski – the team’s most lethal shooter from beyond the arc, shooting an even 50 percent on the season – calmly nailed an NBA-range 3-pointer to increase the lead to nine.
“That’s devastating when you’re a team and you’re a little bit down and miss a free throw, miss the free throw rebound, we run the clock down – and we were a little stagnant – but Sammy hit a huge shot,” Bennett said. “That was what we needed – momentum. Then you saw them bang some 3’s late, so we needed that cushion. That was crucial. You need those defining moments in a game. ”
Another enormous triple came from Jones a few minutes earlier, one that is perhaps indicative of a newfound confidence for the junior under Bennett. The context of Jones’ conversion, however, extends to the previous possession: with eight minutes remaining in regulation, Scott scrambled for a long offensive rebound, and found Jones in the corner. With Virginia already on a 4-0 run, the crowd began to rumble as Jones lined up the wide-open 3-pointer. The shot, though, was long.
“The shot I missed, that felt good,” Jones said. “I was itching to get my hand on the ball again.”
GT was unable to seize the lead on its next possession, as Derrick Favors accounted for two of the Jackets’ seven errant foul shots on the night. Still clinging to a one-point advantage, Virginia took a 30-second timeout as Landesberg got in trouble with a trap on the baseline. Coming out of the timeout, Jones received the opportunity he wanted: he came off a curl to the top of the key, and Farrakhan hit him with a pass in stride. And this time, Jones converted, giving Virginia a four-point lead – its largest of the second half.
“I knew the second one was going down,” Jones said. “I just stayed confident, just stayed with my shot, and I knocked it down.”
And if Zeglinski’s later 3-pointer was the biggest moment of the night, then Jones’ trey was the turning point. The Hoos’ lead would grow to as large as 11 as time wound down, as only some hot shooting late from Tech’s Zachery Peacock kept Virginia from a double-digit margin of victory.
On the defensive side of the ball – like the game against N.C. State three days previously – Virginia’s defense was good only in spurts for most of the game. In particular, Bennett said he was not pleased with his team’s first-half defense, which allowed six offensive rebounds, all of which turned into buckets. Favors and guard Iman Shumpert had their way in the opening period, combining to shoot 10-14 for 21 points while snaring five of the team’s six offensive boards.
“I was not comfortable defensively [in the first half],”Bennett said. “I thought we needed to make them earn much better.”
Again paralleling the game against N.C. State, the tide changed in the second half, particularly as Virginia surged to a double-digit lead. From the 9:48 mark to the 1:37 mark of the half, Georgia Tech shot just 2-10 from the floor as Virginia built its 11-point advantage.
“Our defense shored up in the second half,” Bennett said. “It was physical, with the post players, and that’s a good team. And we kind of outlasted them.”
In particular, Virginia did a much better job on Favors, who went just 1-2 for two points in the second half, and picked up just one offensive rebound. Fellow frontcourt starter Gani Lawal was also limited to a sub-par second half, tallying just six points and two rebounds. Only Peacock got it going from the post in the second half, and most of his 17 points in the period were on 3’s or contested shots on the block.
“Coach Bennett did a great job tonight of mixing it up – when we would trap, or when we would just choke it, and try to help with a guard on the perimeter,” Zeglinski said. “Those guys on Georgia Tech, they’re the real deal; two pros in the posts playing at the same time. I think Jerome, and Mike, and Assane, they all contributed in this win.”
To a man, Virginia has said that it is playing with a chip on its shoulder this year. Landesberg was well aware that this game was the only ACC game of the evening that was not on television. In numerous polls, Virginia was picked to finish last in the conference.
With UNC’s loss Wednesday night, Virginia now sits alone in first place in the ACC. Fair to say that the Hoos and their new coach are now turning some heads.
“If we just stay to this system and keep working hard, it’s scary what we can do,” Jones said.