Sammy Zeglinski led the team with 18 points.
With the annual exam break looming, the Virginia men’s basketball team didn’t check out mentally before an important in-state basketball test on Tuesday night. Instead, the Hoos continued their strong play at the John Paul Jones Arena with a 68-48 victory against George Mason in what felt like a blue collar effort for most of the night. UVa has never lost to its neighbors from Fairfax (7-0 all time).
Of course, that workman-like vibe is something that suits the Cavaliers’ calling card on defense so far this season. The Hoos have held all nine opponents to less than 60 points. George Mason joined South Carolina State, Winthrop, Drexel, and Green Bay as teams that didn’t even crack 50 on the scoreboard; that’s now happened 12 times in the Tony Bennett era. No one scored in double digits for the Patriots and Virginia’s Assane Sene made a major contribution on the defensive end with 4 blocked shots.
“They were a really physical team and it was kind of back and forth with guys really battling, especially down low. Those games are fun. It’s a lot of fun battling, well except when you get called for fouls and that sort of thing,” UVa’s Joe Harris said with a grin; he played just 8 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. “The Pack defense really wears on teams, especially at the end of games. You’ve got to be relentless with it. You play the Pack every possession all the way through the end of the game, there’s no let up. When it’s getting hard to score, especially at the end of the game when they’re trying to rush and get shots to try to get back in the game, it’s really frustrating especially if they’re not hitting anything.”
“It was a physical game and I thought we lasted,” Bennett said. “We had some breakdowns where they just made some straight line drives and some of our turnovers cost us with some transition buckets on their end. Over the course of the game our guys knew they had to fight for position. I thought it won out in the end in terms of making them earn and that was important for us. They are a physical team. They are a strong team with some veteran interior guys and they put three big guys in for a stretch. We weren’t sure if we were going to trap the post or not, but defensively we were pretty solid. There were a few breakdowns but it was good enough to hold them under 50.”
Defense setting the tone is nothing new for the 2011-2012 Hoos, though. The bigger story of the night may have been UVa’s ability to deal with George Mason’s fullcourt pressure. The Patriots used a variety of fullcourt looks defensively in an effort to pressure and speed up the Cavaliers.
It didn’t work.
Early in the game, the Cavaliers made the visitors pay for that strategy by attacking for open looks. That helped the Hoos build the lead to 20-9 (9-0 run to push the lead to double figures) and 32-15. The hosts took a 33-22 advantage into intermission. After the 8:25 mark of the first half, the lead never fell into single digits again. With that steady lead on the scoreboard, the Hoos chose not to attack the press as much in the second half. Instead, they would pull the ball out after backing off the pressure and run the offense for open looks.
“In the first half, I thought we attacked and that’s what got us the big lead early. They wanted to press us and we threw over the top and attacked the rim,” senior Sammy Zeglinski said. “In the second half, they did the same thing and I think they wanted to speed us up. I thought we did a good job of breaking the press and setting up our offense and not settling for the first shot, but breaking them down to get a better look.”
The backcourt tandem of Zeglinski and Jontel Evans played a big role in making decisions against the pressure. Unlike the TCU game in the Virgin Islands where the tempo fluctuated to the Horned Frogs’ favor in Virginia’s only loss of the season (57-55), the Cavaliers controlled the pace of Tuesday night’s game with relative ease. In fact other than one stretch near the midpoint of the second half where Mason did trim the lead to 10 points, UVa seemed to be the team dictating the feel of the game throughout. Against Texas Christian, the Hoos turned the ball over 19 times and took many out-of-rhythm shots. Against the Patriots, the Cavs committed 14 turnovers but did not take many uncharacteristically hurried shots.
Jontel Evans put in 11 points with four assists and three steals.
“I feel like that was a learning experience. It was similar to TCU trying to press us and speed us up and commit turnovers,” Evans said. “They did that in the beginning of the game, but remembering the TCU game, we learned from that, gathered ourselves, took our time, and were sure with the ball.”
With the guards having to handle the defensive pressure and make good decisions, they fittingly led the way offensively against Mason. Other than Mike Scott with 11 points, in fact, the guards did most of the scoring (Sene added 5 and Akil Mitchell 4). Zeglinski led all players with 18 points to go with 4 steals, 1 block, and 1 assist. Evans chipped in 11 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals. Harris posted 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists.
That trio had a very good night shooting the ball, combining to make 16 of 24 attempts on the night. Zeglinski made 6 of 11 shots, including 4 of 6 3-pointers. Harris made 5 of 6 shots, including 1 of 2 triples. Evans connected on 5 of 7 attempts as well. As a team, Virginia shot 60.5% for the game (26-43), including 50% from 3-point range (7 of 14).
“We really work trying to get room and rhythm looks,” Harris said. “In the Virgin Islands, we talked a lot about how we were taking too many contested shots. So we’ve been really focusing on offense on not taking that initial shot especially if it’s going to be contested, but working the offense because it’s really difficult for teams to play defense the whole shot clock and then you usually end up getting something good near the end of the shot clock anyway.”
Virginia hopes that shooting touch doesn’t wear off during the exam break. UVa is on hiatus until a cross-country trip to Oregon and Seattle on Dec. 18 and 21, respectively.