Coach Tony Bennett’s team won its fourth straight game.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett loves the feel of the underdog – the Rocky mentality where the size of the fight in the dog matters most. Bennett also loves when his teams control the pace of play and force opponents to labor in search of offense. So you can safely bet that Bennett loved the grit-and-grind nature of the Cavaliers’ 63-48 victory over Oregon in the John Paul Jones Arena on Friday.
UVa played without Mike Scott (it was announced before the game that he had arthroscopic ankle surgery on his left ankle on Thursday, Dec. 16 to remove loose pieces of cartilage) and Will Sherrill, both senior forwards and captains, but found a way to get the job done. Several ways to be more precise. Virginia (7-3) lit up the nets in the second half, making 12 of 19 shots (63.2%). The Cavaliers also held the Ducks to 34.5% shooting and kept the visitors off the free throw line where they made 7 of 9 attempts. Virginia held its own on the boards (32-30 in Oregon’s favor), blocked 6 shots, grabbed 6 steals, and committed just 11 turnovers too.
Oh, and the Hoos scrapped while playing sound basketball. Just the way Bennett likes it.
“I tried to be real fiery throughout the whole game, at least with the guys in the huddles,” said Bennett, who had several enthusiastic moments and gestures on the sidelines in the game. “I told them ‘We’re all going to embrace this challenge.’ I wanted them to feel that. The crowd got into it. They battle. We’re not perfect by any means, we don’t look the best, but they scrapped and they did things. Win or lose, I said show me quality out there, show me heart, and show me the things that have gotten you to where you’re at. I was pleased with that. I saw some hustle plays and soundness, especially after getting a little rattled at the start – that fired me up and I wanted them to feel that too.”
The UVa defense slowed Oregon down in the win.
Defensively, it was another solid outing for the Cavaliers as they held the Ducks to their lowest point total of the season. Oregon is the second straight opponent to dip below the 40% plateau; Radford managed just 38.6% shooting in the final game before UVa’s exam break. Virginia held both Joevan Catron and E.J. Singler, the Ducks’ leading scorers, below their averages on the season; Catron fell short of his 17.6 points per game with 16, while Singler didn’t reach 13.1 ppg with just 5 on the night. Both players entered the game shooting above 50% from the field, but both fell short of that mark against the Hoos.
Plus, the Cavaliers clamped down on the Ducks’ 3-point shooting, holding the visitors to 3-of-19 shooting on the night, a paltry 15.8%. OU had made 34.3% of its triples on the season before Friday’s contest while Virginia had allowed 42.1% 3-point shooting in its first 10 games, the worst mark in the ACC. It’s an area the Hoos have been working to improve.
“They were cold, but we did a pretty good job of getting out there,” Bennett said. “It was atrocious to start the year. It’s gotten better. We’re working on being in position a little better. I’ve seen them play some games where they’ve been down and rushed back in the game, like against Missouri. They can score in bunches and that system, they can get a lot of threes and I thought we did a solid job defending the three-point line tonight.”
“We knew Catron in the middle, he was the center of their offense and everything worked around him but he did a good job passing and finding guys but I thought we did a good job scrambling and getting to shooters and contesting their shots,” guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “We have to be able to choke it out of the post and be able to scramble back and close out, not get lifted, and get a hand up on the ball.”
Without Scott’s scoring presence in the line-up – he is averaging 16.3 points on the season – the Cavaliers needed more than a strong defensive effort to pull out the win. They needed some points from the perimeter they got that in the form of several players. Freshman KT Harrell and veterans Mustapha Farrakhan and Sammy Zeglinski, who made his season debut against Virginia Tech on Sunday, Dec. 5, all contributed double figures in the scoring column.
K.T. Harrell led the team with 20 points against Oregon.
Harrell, in fact, posted a career-high 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 4 of 6 free throws. He added four rebounds as well. Much of the offensive damage came from a variety of pull-up jumpers as Harrell effectively used one or two power dribbles to find space and then knock down the open looks.
“It’s just a work in progress. My father always worked with me on my mid-range game before I stepped out to the three,” Harrell said. “He wouldn’t let me shoot 3-pointers when I was a young kid. It’s just a work in progress. I’ve been working on it all my life.”
“He is just getting better. He has certainly gotten more playing time, but he has a mean mid-range game. He did a heck of a job taking the ball to a spot and elevating to put it in,” Bennett said. “He has very good touch and you saw that on display. I’m very proud of the guys for battling and improving as the game went on.”
Farrakhan, meanwhile, comfortably worked his way to 17 points. He made 5 of 11 shots and 5 of 5 free throws, which extended his consecutive free throws made streak to 15. It marks the seventh time this season that Farrakhan scored in double figures, but his recent run of three double-digit outings in four games is a sign of a senior finding his comfort zone. At times earlier in his career, perhaps even earlier this season at the start of Virginia’s long road trip, it felt like Farrakhan would force the issue in search of his offense. Now, he seems content to let the game come to him, pick his spots, and contribute in as many ways as possible. He had 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 block as well against Oregon.
Look no further than a key sequence at a critical juncture midway through the second half against the Ducks. With the hosts holding a 35-31 lead, OU’s Jeremy Jacob caught the ball on the right block with what appeared to be a wide-open lay-up forthcoming when Farrakhan flew in from the weak side and blocked the shot defiantly at the 11:42 mark. Quickly going the other way, Zeglinski found Farrakhan spotting up in front of the UVa bench and gave the sharp pass for what Farrakhan called a “room and rhythm” shot, which he buried for three points at 11:37.
“I just go after it if I see an opportunity [for a block] there, but I’m always smart about it. I never just get out of control,” Farrakhan said. “Just anything to help the team. If it’s to block a shot or get a rebound or shoot a shot, I’m just trying to do anything to help.”
Farrakhan’s 3-pointer in that moment was far from the only timely Virginia jumper on the night. In fact, the Hoos beat the shot clock on four separate occasions in the second half. Harrell hit one as the buzzer sounded, Jontel Evans (7 points) made a pull-up jumper, and Zeglinski drained a pair of 3-pointers in the final 8 seconds of the shot clock as well. Those two shots helped Zeglinski contribute 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in 22 minutes of floor time.
“Akil [Mitchell] being able to step up, seeing KT being able to do that and Sammy back, those are some encouraging things,” Bennett said. “Certainly the other guys did well, but those are the three that we probably needed to happen to be in a game like this.”
With Zeglinski’s return, the early season road trip to Hawaii and back, an ACC opening win, and the exam break all in the rearview mirror, Virginia tries to pick up more wins as this 8-game homestand continues with Scott and Sherrill on the mend. The next contest comes Monday night when the Hoos face Norfolk State at 7 p.m.