From the starters, to the fans, to Tristan Spurlock at the end of the bench, the attitude about the Virginia men’s basketball team is changing in Charlottesville.
With time winding down in the first half, point guard Jontel Evans picked up a loose ball, turned and heaved up a high-arching rainbow shot with a Miami defender in his face – a prayer. The ball hung in the air endlessly as it soared toward the basket, and as the buzzer sounded, the crowd waited in anticipation for the ball to fall.
Evans’ prayer was answered, as the ball swished through. And, to this point in the season, Virginia fans have also had their prayers answered for a winning men’s basketball team.
Three games into the conference season, it is all coming together for coach Tony Bennett and the Hoos. Scorers are scoring, shooters are hitting shots, previously insignificant players are contributing, and the entire team is defending. In the Cavaliers’ 75-57 win Saturday night, the season-high crowd of 11,314 rewarded the Hoos with deafening cheers as Virginia won its seventh game in a row and its third straight in the conference, remaining alone in first place in the ACC.
“I don’t remember it being that loud in a long time,” Sammy Zeglinski said. “It was awesome playing. I didn’t want the game to end.”
“You could kind of feel it when you walked in,” Bennett said. “It was a lot warmer – I know I was sweatin’.”
One of the most refreshing improvements for the Hoos this season has been their defense, and in the first half in particular Bennett’s Pack-Line was impeccable. The Hurricanes did not score a point until a Dwayne Collins’ free throw following the first media timeout, as the Hoos ran out to an 8-0 lead. Miami shot an abysmal 5 of 23 for 21 points in the first half, including 1 of 9 from beyond the 3-point line; the Canes had converted an ACC-best 146 triples coming into the evening.
“I thought, defensively, [the first half] was one of our better performances, just in terms of how active we were, stopping them in transition, and making them work,” Bennett said. “That’s what I want to keep seeing.
Mustapha Farrakhan had another nice night on both ends of the floor, finishing with 13 points, two assists, and one block.
Although the defense declined somewhat in the second half, Virginia still held the Hurricanes to just 38.1% shooting. For the game, Miami shot 31.5% from the floor, as their top three scorers of Collins, James Dews, and Malcolm Grant combined to convert on just 8 of 29 field goals.
“I think there’s getting to be some pride in their defense,” Bennett said. “When they get beat, you see them looking at you and saying, ‘That was my fault.’ Not in a way like, ‘My bad,’ like everybody says, but as, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have let that happen, I’ll get it next time.'”
The Hoos’ first-half defensive effort was particularly important given an up-and-down half offensively. Virginia finished with seven first-half turnovers, six of them in a span of 9:04 late in the period, during which the Hoos mustered just seven points. As Bennett has clamored for all season, however, the Cavaliers’ defense held Miami at bay while the offense struggled, and what started as a nine-point advantage merely shrunk to seven during the span. And, as has become customary in ACC play, Jeff Jones ended the dry spell with a timely 3 with 2:29 remaining in the period, pushing the lead back to double digits.
“I think our team just feels like when we need a stop, we can get it,” Zeglinski said. “We do a good job of really buckling down, and when we need a stop, we’ll lock in and get ball pressure, and being in the gaps, and just helping off the ball. I thought the defense kept us in the game.”
One featured element of the Hoos’ defense this year has been the rebounding of their guards, and it was never more evident than Saturday. As Virginia’s big men cleared out the lane, the guards were there to clean up. At game’s end, it was the two smallest scholarship players on the roster, Zeglinski and Jontel Evans , who led the team in rebounding, as each finished with seven defensive boards.
“In our system, the guards have to come back and rebound,” Bennett said. “Especially sometimes when we were trapping the post, we’ve got to have our guards down in the hole, covering the rim and rebounding. They have to come back – we tell them to check, and then come back. Our big guys are going to fight to put bodies on people, but you’ve got to come spear some rebounds – we call it gang rebounding. That’s not an uncharacteristic stat over the years, having your guards either lead you in rebounding or have a nice amount.”
Jontel Evans finished with four points, four assists and seven rebounds in the first start of his career.
But the backcourt duo of Evans and Zeglinski did more than just rebound. Though Zeglinski had a bit of an off-night shooting, as he shot 3 of 8 from the field, he finished with a timely 10 points, along with six assists, a steal and no turnovers to go with his seven boards. Evans, meanwhile, received the first start of his career, and dished off four assists, and also had a steal and no turnovers. In addition, Evans pestered Miami’s backcourt throughout the night – something that Bennett had counted on in starting the freshman point guard.
“He can really ignite our defense,” Bennett said. “I told him before the game, ‘You have to make sure that guy knows, it’s going to be a war against you.’ When your defense is set like that, and their first entry pass is a few feet further out, it just helps our defense.”
The Cavaliers’ shooters, meanwhile, continued to light it up. Sylven Landesberg had perhaps the quietest 18 points of the season on an efficient 8-of-14 shooting. Mustapha Farrakhan knocked in 4 of 5 field goals and converted 4 of 6 free throws earned on some aggressive drives to the rim. Jeff Jones again was judicious with his limited looks at the basket, knocking in all three of his 3-point field goal attempts – including a baseline 3-ball that increased the UVa lead to 16 with 3:25 remaining, all but sealing a Virginia victory. Even Jerome Meyinsse – once an afterthought in Virginia’s offensive scheme -got in on the scoring, as all three of his field goals came on aggressive moves in the post.
On top of Virginia’s typical perimeter threats, Mike Scott also showed his versatility by playing more on the perimeter than previously in ACC play. As Cvillehoops13 predicted in his Sabre scouting report, Scott stepped out early and often offensively, forcing Miami’s big men to guard away from the rim. And when Miami failed to respect the 6-foot-8 power forward, he made them pay – he finished with 10 points on 5-of-11 shooting, all on jump shots.
“Sometimes when you have a bigger guy, and you move him around a little bit, it opens the court up, and [Scott’s] shown that,” Bennett said. “I like moving Mike around depending on who’s guarding him, and he has the ability to hit a mid-range shot or put it on the floor.”
When prompted about the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team, Bennett deflected the credit to his players, noting that they are a year older, more mature, and hungry to prove that they are a capable team in the ACC. The fact remains, however, that with the change in the coaching staff has come a change in Virginia’s fortunes. The team picked to finish 11th in the ACC by the media remains as the only team that is undefeated in the conference. In the year that was supposed to be one of growing pains as Bennett inserted a new system, Virginia knocked off each of three ranked opponents.
It may be too early to start talking about an NCAA Tournament appearance, but it is not too soon to say that this year’s team is better than the team that preceded it. The Cavaliers’ 11 wins are already one better than last season. The once gaudy turnover numbers and porous defense are getting fixed on the fly, even against the stern test of ACC competition.
And, in the interview room at game’s end, smiling faces spoke of newfound confidence and belief in Bennett’s system. Winning, as the Cavaliers and their fans are finding out, is contagious.
“Oh man, it feels great,” Landesberg said. “Last year was tough, we had a lot of tough losses. We’re showing a lot of maturity this year, being able to pull close wins out, and being able to execute on both ends of the court.”