Virginia coach Tony Bennett won his first career ACC Tournament game Thursday, while the Cavaliers snapped a nine-game skid.
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Heading into the ACC Tournament with a nine-game losing streak, there was little positive to be said about the Virginia men’s basketball team – except that the Hoos had hung with Maryland in their season finale, even without Sylven Landesberg .
Apparently, that game wasn’t a fluke.
With an inspired performance on both ends of the floor, Virginia became the first ACC team in 2010 to join the “crazy things happen in postseason tournaments” category. The Hoos pulled off a 68-62 victory against Boston College in the first game of the 2010 ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum – an upset much larger than the match-up between the No. 8 seed Eagles and the No. 9 seed Cavaliers would indicate. Virginia ended a nine-game losing streak and pulled off its most “lopsided” ACC Tournament win since 1995 with the win over the Eagles, who had contributed to the Hoos’ nine-game skid with a 68-55 beating just eight days earlier.
“We’ve had some struggles, we’ve had some setbacks, but leading up to this game, we had three really spirited practices,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “They have come together, they’ve worked hard, and there’s been a good attitude. You have to do that when your tank isn’t full, and I was really proud of the way they handled it.”
Cavalier fans did not show up at the Greensboro Coliseum in great numbers, but the number of raised fists in orange shirts at game’s end made it seem as though the team had done something much more meaningful than merely advancing to play Duke on Friday at noon in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals.
Jeff Jones finished with 14 points. He made 3 of 5 3-point baskets and 5 of 7 free throws.
In fact, it had.
“Man, it was great, getting that weight off your shoulders,” Virginia guard Jeff Jones said. “Nobody wants to go in the summer with a 10-game losing streak. With the competitors on this team, along with the coaches, nobody wants to do that. It would make the summer that much worse.”
Clearly, the Cavaliers had to shoot the ball much better than they had oftentimes during their losing streak if they hoped to beat the Eagles without Landesberg. They did. The Hoos shot 43.4 percent from the floor, which included an 8-of-15 outing from Sammy Zeglinski for a season-high 21 points. Zeglinski broke out of a 17-of-75 slump with a 5-of-11 shooting effort against Maryland and then kept it going Thursday. Mike Scott came through with 5-of-11 shooting for 11 points, this after scoring two points or fewer in three out of the previous four games. Jones, meanwhile, finished 3-of-5 shooting from 3-point territory for 14 points, this after being held scoreless in two of his last three games. And finally, Jerome Meyinsse continued his late-season surge with a 4-of-7 shooting night; he has now scored in double digits in his last five games. Ten points from Mustapha Farrakhan gave the Hoos five players in double figures.
Virginia had yet to feature five double-figure scorers against an ACC opponent. In fact, the Cavaliers accomplished that feat just twice all season, in wins against Longwood and Cleveland State.
“That was important, I think we had to get a feel for that,” Bennett said. “Having three days of preparation for BC was big – they got a little bit more comfortable with each other, and I did think that certainly made a difference. Anytime you can get some inside-outside scoring, and get more than one or two guys in double figures, that’s helped us a lot.”
Defensively, meanwhile, the Cavaliers defended the flex offense as well as they had all season in the first half. The Eagles shot 38.5 percent from the floor in the opening period, with numerous possessions coming down to contested jumpers at the end of the shot clock. That defensive effort and some impressive first-half shooting from Zeglinski – 6 of 9 from the field and 4 of 7 from the 3-point line for 16 first-half points – gave the Hoos a 34-27 lead at halftime. Virginia had not held a lead that large against an ACC opponent since Jan. 16 at home against Miami, which perhaps marked the only defensive performance of the season that rivaled this one.
“We really had to take a look at how we defended [the flex] the first time [against BC], because they had too many baskets in that paint area, and they had too many transition baskets and offensive rebounds,” Bennett said. “We really preached that, leading up to this, they have to beat us over the top. We made a simple little adjustment – it wasn’t a big deal, but it helped us somewhat – and our kids, they were really together. They were helping, they were covering, and for the most part, we made them earn.”
Meyinsse clarified exactly what defensive adjustment Bennett was referring to.
“Instead of trying to fight them and make them go over the top of the screen, I think we tried to beat them over the screen,” Meyinsse said. “That allowed us to prevent them from getting easy lay-ups.”
Even as BC scored on 10 of 14 possessions to take a 23-17 lead heading into the second media timeout of the half, Bennett told his team to keep it up – the Eagles made some difficult shots during that stretch, which did not happen nearly as often the rest of the way.
“Just keep hanging, because you’re playing the way you need to, and that won’t happen all game hopefully,” Bennett told his team during the timeout. “It didn’t.”
Boston College coach Al Skinner, though, countered in the second half by moving away from the flex and taking advantage of mismatches off of various offensive actions. The Cavalier guards often got caught defending the likes of 6’5″, 228-pound Rakim Sanders and 6’6″ 218-pound Corey Raji,, who took advantage easily in the beginning portion of the period. As the Cavaliers simultaneously went cold, Boston College went on an 8-0 run to cut the deficit from 11 to three heading into a timeout at the 8:44 mark.
During that timeout, though, Bennett switched Scott onto Sanders, and that went a long ways toward the victory. Sanders did not score with Scott defending him, and two consecutive buckets from Scott – a turnaround from the baseline and a tip-in off a Jones miss inside – quickly gave the Cavaliers some breathing room.
“He had some big baskets that we really needed,” Bennett said. “He could match up on Sanders – Sanders got going, and [Scott] at least could use his body and then finish the play on the defensive glass, so that helped us with a couple of his big baskets.”
Mike Scott snapped out of a late-season funk with a double-double of 11 points and 13 rebounds.
While Zeglinski was the most heralded Cavalier offensively, Scott’s second-half effort was enormous for Virginia. After being replaced by Will Sherrill in the starting line-up, Scott picked up a double-double of 11 points and 13 rebounds off the bench – including 7 points and 7 boards in the second half. Plus, he helped hold down Sanders in the final minutes.
“Mike has the ability, but he’s been a bit inconsistent lately, and that’s why I didn’t start him,” Bennett said. “I wanted him to just watch and come in … he really worked defensively.”
Of course, had it not been for an unlikely first-half bucket, Scott would have come up just short of that double-double. Just under the 2:00 mark of the first half, Farrakhan fed Scott on a fastbreak. Scott went up for his signature right-handed throw down, but BC’s Evan Ravenel grabbed Scott by the arm, and the ball went soaring into the air.
The ball took on a mind of its own, though, and floated gently off the glass and through. Although Scott missed the free throw, the Cavaliers took a 34-25 lead.
“I just went up to try to dunk it, and it was like the whole team fouled me,” Scott said. “I just fell, and everybody helping me up was like, ‘Yeah!’ I was like, I must have made it. I was like, ‘Did I make it?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.'”
And that wasn’t the only time a friendly rim gave Virginia a basket unbeknownst to the shooter. The Cavaliers secured their first double-digit lead of the half thanks to a corner 3 from Jones, which hit back iron before hanging high above the basket, hitting the backboard and dropping.
“I thought I got fouled, and actually when the ball was going up, I was looking at the ref, I didn’t even look at the play,” Jones said. “I saw it went in, so I said, hey, I’ll take it. That’s how the game was going, it was just meant to be.”
Cavalier fans, too, likely felt fortunate for getting a few breaks after a month-long struggle and a long losing streak. Not to mention the late technical foul against Maryland last Saturday that prevented a potential upset on Senior Day.
Throughout the losing streak, though, Bennett looked at the big picture. But, even if it’s short-lived, the Cavaliers don’t mind living in the moment for the time being.
“We were dying for quality basketball,” Bennett said. “And then, when you have success on top of it, it’s also good, and it does I guess alleviate that long stretch of losses.”