Tony Bennett coached Virginia to its first win at the Smith Center since 2002.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – With the Cavaliers coming off their most devastating loss of the season Thursday night, coach Tony Bennett had one simple message for his team as it prepared to play the defending National Champions on their home turf less than 72 hours later.
“A lot of teams would probably hang their heads, and maybe go into a situation like this and not fight,” Bennett told his team. “I want you to be different.”
The Cavaliers were different indeed – different from any Virginia team in the last seven years.
Even with a surprisingly capable Virginia team and a surprisingly struggling Carolina team taking the floor Sunday night, few could have thought that the Tar Heels would not only lose their contest against the Cavaliers, but never even hold a lead. Such was the case at the Smith Center, however, as an 18-0 second-half run propelled the Hoos to a 75-60 victory – a shocking result for both parties.
“I definitely thought we could come in here and win,” UVa forward Will Sherill said. “But, win by as much as we did? The clock was definitely moving really slowly in that second half, I’ll tell you that.”
The win marked just the sixth win in 69 games for the Hoos against the Heels all time in Chapel Hill, the third win in the last 23 games at the Smith Center, and the first win at the Smith Center since 2002. But, of course, it was the only game in which Bennett was involved – the head coach had in fact never stepped foot in the Smith Center prior to Sunday night.
“I feel fortunate,” Bennett said. “For me in my first trip to come out with a victory, I know that doesn’t happen all the time.”
After going into halftime with a 35-30 lead despite a 10-3 offensive rebounding advantage for the Heels, the Hoos took control to open the second period. The Tar Heels opened with a bucket on their first possession, but Virginia held the hosts scoreless on their next eight possessions, which included three turnovers. The Hoos’ 18 straight points, meanwhile, included two of Sammy Zeglinski’s five 3-pointers on the night, and ended with a pass slipped from Zeglinski to Jerome Meyinsse for a powerful dunk plus the foul. Meyinsse also had a dominant second-half sequence on the defensive end in which he recorded three blocks in a span of 25 seconds.
Sylven Landesberg finished with a season-high 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting.
The individual story of the night, however, was the offensive display from Landesberg, which was even more magnificent than usual. Mixing in an array of pull-up jumpers into his usual arsenal of drives to the rim, Landesberg finished with a season-high 29 points by making 11 of 18 field goals and 7 of 8 free throws. Landesberg, who is the only player in the conference to score at least 18 points in every ACC game this season, committed just two turnovers. Landesberg was particularly vital late in the shot clock, when he consistently seemed to find a way to the basket or to the free throw line in critical situations.
“My teammates were fooling around with me before the game – they said this was like the Garden, you’ve got to come and show up here,” Landesberg said. “I definitely took that to mind, and tried to show off a little bit.”
Zeglinski also played a critical role offensively, as he knocked down 5 of 8 triples on the night – most of them from his favorite spot, the left corner. One shot in particular induced flashbacks to three days earlier – with 3:35 remaining and Virginia holding a 14-point lead, Zeglinski found himself wide open in his sweet spot with 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The sophomore hesitated, then fired.
Against Virginia Tech with the Cavaliers up 10 with just more than three minutes remaining, teammate Jeff Jones had launched a 3-ball from the same corner early in the clock, and missed it short. The Hokies went on to erase the 10-point margin and take the win in overtime. Zeglinski, however, drained his 3-pointer early in the clock to extend the Hoos lead and put the hammer on the Heels.
“I told Sammy, he’s lucky he made that three with 20 seconds, because we’ve been there before, haven’t we?” Bennett said.
Generally, the Cavaliers were more efficient in their time management against Carolina than in their collapse against the Hokies, though. Leading by 20 with 7:44 remaining, Zeglinski’s 3-pointer was the only field goal attempted by the Cavaliers with more than five seconds remaining on the shot clock. Virginia was also efficient at the foul line, going 14 of 18 on the night, with all 14 makes coming in the second half – the Hoos were 0 of 1 in the first.
“I talked about it in the huddles, I said, ‘You’ve been in this spot before, show me you’ve learned,'” Bennett said. “Failure is the greatest teacher, and I think it taught us well in this instance.”
“We knew that being up 20 didn’t mean anything, especially against North Carolina,” Landesberg said. “The main thing that helped us out was playing great defense. Being able to hold a team like that to 60 points is just phenomenal.”
Defensively, the one area that Virginia lacked in the first half – defensive rebounding – was shored up in the second, as the Cavaliers won the rebounding battle 17-13 in the period. Overall, the Hoos allowed just 35.7% shooting by the Heels, though Carolina did miss several wide-open looks. UVa’s second-half defense and UNC’s second-half shooting woes were particularly noticeable in the stats – four of UNC’s five starters combined to shoot 0 for 9 in the half. Included in those numbers are a combined 0-of-3 shooting for frontcourt starters Deon Thompson and Ed Davis , and 0-for-6 for Will Graves, who had knocked down 4 of 6 threes in the opening period to keep the Heels in the game.
“We made them earn, and I think that was important, and I understand too, they were cold, and they didn’t play one of their best games, I really understand that,” Bennett said. “But, we did take advantage of the opportunities we had, and we didn’t stop cutting hard, moving hard, defending hard.”
After picking up a few conference victories to start the season, fans couldn’t help but notice UVa as the television flashed the Hoos atop the conference standings with a 3-0 record. But, after getting trounced by Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, and after collapsing late against the Hokies in Charlottesville, the Hoos went right back off the radar.
But with a win against the defending National Champions on their home floor, the Hoos are back on the college basketball map with a vengeance – and with the ultimate compliment from North Carolina coach Roy Williams to boot.
“They’re a good basketball team. Whether you look at their three-point field goal percentage, or free throws, or rebound margin, you go down the line and see that they do a really nice job of playing team basketball,” Williams said. “It looked like some of our teams from past years.”