Sylven Landesberg celebrated with his teammates after knocking down Virginia’s game-winning shot.
It is often the case that basketball is a game of runs.
But this age-old sentiment does not do justice to UNC-Wilmington’s match-up with Virginia on Monday night. In the first half, a 15-0 Seahawks run was followed immediately by a 20-0 burst from the Hoos. Midway through the second half, a 12-0 run for the Seahawks made the game close in the final minutes. And this for a UNC-W team that, going into the evening, had as many losses – 11 – as Virginia had wins.
It was only in the waning seconds that, finally, the contest became predictable. When Bennett called timeout to draw up a play with 14 seconds remaining, everyone in the John Paul Jones Arena knew that Sylven Landesberg would be the primary option on Virginia’s final possession – including the Seahawks. Nevertheless, Landesberg found himself wide open just outside the left elbow with seconds remaining, and calmly knocked down the game-winner, giving the Hoos their eighth straight victory, a 69-67 triumph.
“This was an odd game, I’ll tell you that much,” Landesberg said. “I’ve never been in a game like that before.”
The play Bennett ran for Landesberg at game’s end was not tremendously complex – Jerome Meyinsse set a down screen toward the baseline, and Landesberg curled off the screen to the wing. Landesberg then had the option to drive or to dish to Meyinsse rolling to the basket, in addition to pulling up for a jumper. Those were options, though, that Landesberg didn’t need. He caught the ball cleanly on the curl cut and his jumper dropped with three seconds remaining, giving the sophomore a team-leading 19 points on the night.
“The big man hedged off Jerome, and he didn’t come out to me – he went flat,” Landesberg said. “If I would have drove, I would have drove right into him, so I just took what was given to me. They were basically in my jersey the whole night, so I was very surprised that I actually got that much space.”
Jerome Meyinsse scored a career-high 14 points against UNC-Wilmington, and set the screen on the game-winning play.
At halftime, it did not appear that any late-game heroics from Virginia would be necessary. The Cavaliers scored 20 straight points late in the first half, and nearly finished the period with that 20-0 burst – UNC-W guard Chad Tomko connected on a tough 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining to give the Seahawks their first field goal since the 10:45 mark in the period. It left the Hoos with a seven-point advantage at the break. And Virginia continued to build on its lead in the second half, as it led by as many as 16 in the first 10 minutes.
In Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s estimation, however, the Hoos got careless, and the Seahawks couldn’t miss. Beginning at the 10:32 mark of the second, UNCW made each of its next five field goals to go on a 12-0 run over the next 3:34. The surge included back-to-back triples from forward Ahmad Grant, who connected on all five of his 3-point attempts in the second half. Virginia, meanwhile, missed six jumpers in a row – several early in the shot clock – and committed three turnovers in the span.
“They certainly out-executed us, and we were a little casual,” Bennett said. “We got a little bit away from who we were. We had a chance when we were up 15 or 16, and we couldn’t put them away. I just thought we lost our way in the second half.”
Meyinsse knocked in a pair of free throws to end the drought – the senior went 8 of 9 from the stripe on his way to a career-high 14 points on the night – but the Seahawks continued to be productive offensively. In fact, Grant’s back-to-back 3-pointers mentioned above started a stretch where UNC-W scored on 7 of 9 possessions; only a pair of UVa steals slowed the visitors down at all.
When the Seahawks finally missed a shot, however, it turned out to be a critical one. With Virginia leading 66-64, UNCW had two point-blank lay-ups and a tip at the rim with 1:33 to play, but blew all three attempts. Point guard Sammy Zeglinski chased down the loose ball rebound on the third miss, and after Landesberg knocked in a free throw to push the lead to three with less than a minute remaining, the Hoos appeared to be in command.
On the next possession, however, Zeglinski was trailing off a screen and bit on a shot fake from Tomko from beyond the 3-point line. It proved costly. Jontel Evans was forced to help on Tomko, leaving Grant alone in the corner. Tomko alertly found his red-hot teammate, who buried his fifth three in a row with 35 seconds remaining. That tied the score at 67 before Landesberg’s game-winner decided the outcome.
Bennett was quick to point out that UNC-W’s offensive onslaught in the second half, which included 59.3 percent shooting, was not all on Virginia’s defense. Some damage was done on UVa turnovers – after committing just one turnover in the first half, the Hoos had 10 in the second, many of which led to transition buckets. And, Bennett was impressed with the Seahawks’ offensive complexity – Bennett said he told Wilmington coach Benny Moss after the game, “Your stuff’s hard to guard, particularly your shooters.” Overall, however, his discussion of the Hoos’ second-half performance was a flashback to the UTPA press conference. The score showed a Virginia victory, but for Bennett, the game was about much more than that.
“After the game, I said, ‘I could have handled losing that game, but what I didn’t like is the quality,'” Bennett said. “I thought we took a step outside of who we had been the last few games, where we had played well. That part we’ll learn from, but to be in a tight game and feel that, that’s certainly good experience.”
And, in another similarity to UTPA, Bennett was asked if his Hoos had perhaps taken the Seahawks for granted. The coach said that he thought his team hadn’t. And, as the Cavs prepare to head to Wake Forest on Saturday, he made another important point.
“I don’t think we took them for granted, but from here on out there’s nobody to take for granted,” Bennett said. “So I guess that’s a moot point.”