By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett preaches patience. It will take years, he says, for him to get the UVa men’s basketball program to where he wants it to be.
And no doubt he’s correct. But there are likely to be enticing glimpses of the future along the way, and Virginia fans got one Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
Before an announced crowd of 8,061, UVa destroyed a Rider team that had opened the season with a stunning win at then-No. 18 Mississippi State. The Cavaliers dominated in every area and blasted the Broncs 79-46.
Rider coach Tommy Dempsey said his team arrived at JPJ expecting to win. Boosting the Broncs’ confidence presumably was UVa’s horrid performance Monday night in a 66-49 loss at South Florida.
“This’ll bring us back to earth,” Dempsey said.
The Broncs went 10 for 16 from 3-point range in their 88-74 win over Mississippi State, and they were 16 for 29 from beyond the arc three nights later in a victory over Lehigh.
“I thought it was good that they beat Mississippi State, because it really got our attention,” UVa junior Will Sherrill said. “We were watching the tape, and they were knocking down 3’s, and we really came into this game focused, especially coming off a loss.
Against the Wahoos’ aggressive defense, the Broncs (2-1) missed 16 of 23 shots from long range. The game turned into such a blowout that Bennett was able to play walk-on guards Doug Browman, Tom Jonke and Thomas Kody in the final minutes.
“We were a lot more loose on Friday night at Mississippi State,” Dempsey said. “Then all of the sudden you win that game, you win your next, and you’re getting votes in the AP poll, and everybody’s talking about how good you are, and all of the sudden the pressure mounts. And again, Virginia made us pay for that.”
The ‘Hoos (2-1) went ahead to stay 130 seconds into the game, on a fast-break layup by 6-8 junior Mike Scott off a pass from classmate Mustapha Farrakhan. By halftime, Scott was 6 for 6 from the floor, and Virginia led 36-22.
UVa had led by 22 midway through its opener, only to allow Longwood to shoot 54.8 percent from the floor in the second half. The Cavaliers won 85-72, but their defensive lapses irked their first-year coach, and he reminded them of that at the break Thursday night.
“I said, ‘Hey, listen, you have to sustain. Talk is cheap. It’s time to go out there and sustain, and don’t let it slide defensively, and work for good shots,'” Bennett said. “They didn’t let down, so I thought that was good.”
UVa’s defense, helped by Rider’s poor shot selection, grew stingier in the second half. The Broncos were 8 for 30 from the floor after intermission and shot 33.3 percent for the game.
“Coming into the game, their shooting percentage was ridiculous,” Virginia guard Sammy Zeglinski said, “so we really were focusing in on taking the 3-pointer away and making them beat us from the inside. Defensively, we were able to lock in the whole game.”
After starting Scott and four perimeter players in each of the first two games, Bennett opted for a bigger lineup Thursday. He started 6-9 senior Jerome Meyinsse alongside Scott in the frontcourt and brought 6-4 junior Jeff Jones off the bench.
The strategy worked beautifully. Meyinsse played stellar defense and relieved the pressure on Scott, who finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists in 28 minutes. Jones looked comfortable in his new role, scoring 11 points in 19 minutes. He was 2 for 5 from 3-point range and twice scored on deft drives.
“I like having a guy who can come off in that capacity and be a threat and score,” Bennett said. “I thought Jeff would be a good guy to be a spark. I don’t know if I’d call him Vinnie Johnson, the Microwave, yet, but he’s a guy that can come off and stretch the defense.”
Jones’ contributions notwithstanding, Virginia’s MVR — most valuable reserve — was Sherrill. A 6-9 walk-on from New York City, Sherrill never had played more than five minutes in a college game before Thursday night.
He played 16 against Rider — 11 in the first half — and finished with 2 points, 1 assist, 1 steal and a career-high 6 rebounds. The box score does not do Sherrill’s performance justice.
“He really is a very good role player,” Bennett said. “He’ll give of himself, screen to get people open, play off of screens, and seems to be a pretty heady player. He did what was asked of him tonight.
“I thought he gave us a real nice lift. You need guys who are like that. They’re kind of the worker bees, as we say. They just kind of keep things going. They just want to give of themselves.”
Sherrill said: “I just tried to provide a spark when I got in there. It feels great to be able to really contribute in a meaningful way in this game and really help our team come together like we did tonight. Tonight was a real complete effort.”
Sophomore guard Sylven Landesberg, who came in as UVa’s leading scorer, had a quiet 10 points in 20 minutes, but his team didn’t need more from him on this night.
“As long as we’re getting wins, I can’t complain,” Landesberg said. “That’s the goal of everyone on this team.”