By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa men’s basketball team, the U.S. portion of the Cancun Challenge is over. It could not have gone much better for the Cavaliers.
In its first game in that event, Virginia ripped Rider 79-46 on Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena. About 43 hours later, the Wahoos romped in another Cancun Challenge game at JPJ.
Their victim Saturday was Oral Roberts, which was coming off a last-minute win at Stanford.
There was no such drama in this one.
Virginia, which led by six points at the break, blew past ORU early in the second half and rarely faltered the rest of the way. The final was 76-55, and the small but appreciative crowd of 8,829 went home happy.
The fans had a lot to cheer, from Mike Scott’s double-double to Sammy Zeglinski’s marksmanship to Mustapha Farrakhan’s defense to Assane Sene’s surprising production in his 2009-10 debut.
The Cavaliers’ new coaching staff liked much of what they saw, too.
“That was a good win for us,” head man Tony Bennett said.
Bennett is the son of a legendary former coach, Dick Bennett, who was in the stands Saturday afternoon. On the opposite bench was Scott Sutton, whose father, Eddie, was a renowned coach as well.
The Cavaliers impressed the younger Sutton.
“Sometimes when a new staff takes over, a new head coach, it takes time to implement his system, his philosophy,” Scott Sutton said. “Seems like they’ve really picked it up well. I think Tony’s one of the best coaches we have in this country.”
Four players scored in double figures for UVa, led by Scott (15 points, 10 rebounds), and Sene added a career-high eight points, seven boards and one blocked shot in 13 crowd-pleasing minutes.
“The big fella came in and, I thought, played pretty well for his first time out,” Sutton said.
The Wahoos (3-1) leave early Sunday for Mexico, where they’ll compete in the Cancun portion of the Cancun Challenge. Virginia will meet Stanford on Tuesday, Kentucky or Cleveland State about 24 hours later.
If the ‘Hoos play defense in Cancun as energetically as they did against Rider and Oral Roberts, the trip may well be a successful one for Bennett’s bunch. The Broncs shot 33.3 percent from the floor against UVa; the Golden Eagles, 32.1 percent.
“They make it awfully difficult for you to get easy points,” Sutton said.
That wasn’t the case early for ORU (2-2). Sophomore swingman Kyron Stokes, 1 for 9 on 3-pointers in his first three games, hit three in a span of 70 seconds to push the Golden Eagles’ lead to 16-10.
Stokes wasn’t through. He came in shooting 25.9 percent from beyond the arc for his career, but he made another first-half trey to put the Golden Eagles up 19-14.
“We weren’t planning on him hitting them like that, but then you just have to honor him and get to him on shots, get to him on closeouts,” Bennett said. “Those things happen.”
If the Cavaliers’ defense hadn’t improved — and it did — there would have been one very unhappy head coach in the building.
“I felt like we did not have a sense of urgency, though we talked about it, defensively coming out,” Bennett said. “We weren’t active. We had a lot of breakdowns early, and they hit some shots.
“You can’t just trade baskets. That won’t get it done.”
ORU’s leading scorer coming in was sophomore forward Dominique Morrison. He totaled a career-high 31 points against Stanford, but managed only seven Saturday on 3-for-15 shooting. Credit the suffocating defense of Farrakhan, a 6-4 junior guard.
“Mu took that challenge and just tried to make him earn as much as possible,” Bennett said.
Farrakhan said: “I was just trying to slow him down and make him take tough shots.”
At the other end, Farrakhan contributed 13 points, four assists and a steal.
“I thought he was complete,” Bennett said.
Virginia had an opportunity to blow the game open in the first half after sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg got a pass from Farrakhan and scored on the break to make it 38-28 with 5:48 to play.
That turned out to be UVa’s final field goal of the half, however, and the score was 41-35 when the teams headed to their locker rooms.
Oral Roberts scored the first three points of the second half, and suddenly it was a three-point game. But the Wahoos moved the ball well on their next possession, and it ended up in the hands of Zeglinski, who buried a 3-pointer from the right wing.
So started an 18-4 run that staggered the Golden Eagles.
“I’m shooting with confidence,” said Zeglinski, who was 3 for 6 from beyond the arc. “I felt like we needed a big shot. I just took advantage of the bad closeout on their part.”
There were many times in 2008-09 when Landesberg, the ACC rookie of the year, seemed to be UVa’s only viable option on offense. Through four games this season, four Cavaliers are averaging in double figures.
“Everybody’s able to chip in more,” Landesberg said. “Everybody’s got a little more playing time. Everybody’s confidence is up as well. I think everybody’s playing much better than they did last year. As long as we keep stacking up wins, everybody’s happy.”
For Landesberg, it’s been “hard trying to get the ball at times,” he said. “Teams are denying me, switching up, doing different kind of things at the defensive end. But as people as starting to see early on, I’m not the only one on my team who can produce.”
Scott said: “When we’re all hitting, we’re all moving the ball, we’re all playing defense, we’re all rebounding, we’re going to win.”
Sene sat out the first three games after being suspended for what Bennett called conduct detrimental to the team. With 6:46 left in the first half Saturday, starting center Jerome Meyinsse was called for his second foul, and Sene made his first appearance of the season, to warm applause from the fans.
Five fouls later — the last of which was questionable — Sene took a seat with 35.1 seconds left in the game, to still more applause.
“I was too excited today. I was too hyped. I was too excited to come back and play with my teammates,” Sene said.
“It was really tough to watch them play when I was on the bench. I said, ‘All right, I’m going to come back and do my thing to help my team win.'”
Sene noticed and appreciated the fans’ support.
“The crowd is our sixth man,” he said. “They always motivate us. I have to go out on the basketball court and pay them back, because they help me, make me excited, make me get hyped.”