By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With 4 minutes left, UVa trailed Penn State by 12 points in their Big Ten/ACC Challenge men’s basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena.
If first-year coach Tony Bennett hadn’t given up all hope, he was at least realistic.
“We needed every break to go our way,” Bennett said later.
The Wahoos didn’t get every break — veteran ACC official Karl Hess made sure of that in the final minute — but they nearly completed a miraculous comeback anyway before 8,898 fans Monday night.
Sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski pulled up about 23 feet from the basket as the clock hit :01. He was worried that the Nittany Lions would foul him before he could get his shot off — Virginia trailed by three — so he leaned forward before letting the ball go.
“I probably should have gone straight up with my shot,” Zeglinski said. “It was just one of those things. It just didn’t go down.”
And so the Cavaliers lost 69-66 in a game they led by six at halftime. Blame their defensive lapses, a familiar story as this season unfolds.
In the first half Monday night, UVa (4-3) held Penn State to 34.6-percent accuracy from the floor. After intermission, the Nittany Lions (5-2) shot 53.8 percent. During one stretch, they scored on nine straight possessions.
“I thought we were such a good team defensive unit in the first half,” Bennett said. “And then in that stretch to start the second half, they got to the rim, they got transition baskets, they did the things that we work on every day in practice that are going to make you lose.”
At halftime, Virginia led 27-21, but its margin could have — and should have, Bennett said — been greater. In the other locker room, Penn State’s veteran coach figured his team was in solid position.
“I thought we would open the floor a little bit and score some points,” Ed DeChellis said. “I didn’t know we’d score 48 in the second half.”
UVa has yet to beat a team from a major conference this season. Its wins have come against Longwood, Rider, Oral Roberts and Cleveland State. The Cavaliers have lost to South Florida (Big East), Stanford (Pac-10) and, now, Penn State.
“We have a small margin of error,” Bennett told reporters. “You guys all see that. We’ve got to just keep trying to eliminate those breakdowns to give ourselves a chance.”
Zeglinski missed the game’s final shot, but he produced a highlight reel late, scoring all 16 of his points in the final 4:32. He made a pull-up jumper, two free throws and four 3-pointers, including an NBA-length bomb that made it 67-66 with 5.7 seconds left.
“Give the credit to him,” DeChellis said. “We were trying to guard him. He just pulled from really, really deep, way behind the line, and made shots.”
The best guard on the court, though, was a Nittany Lion, and it wasn’t close. Talor Battle, who made the all-Big Ten first team as a sophomore in 2008-09, scored 28 of his game-high 32 points in the second half. He was 5 for 7 from beyond the arc in the final 19 minutes.
“He takes the game over,” DeChellis said. “He’s really a good player. He has not been shooting the ball well from 3, and he’ll be the first to tell you. He’s worked on it extremely hard, and I knew he’d have a breakout game for us, and we needed it. You need your best player to step up.”
Battle set a JPJ record for points in a half. He matched the mark of 32 — the most scored by an opposing player at JPJ — set by Clemson’s K.C. Rivers in February 2008.
“I tip my hat to him,” said Zeglinski, who roomed with Battle at a Nike camp when they were in high school.
Bennett, a former NBA guard, praised Battle, too.
“You can see why he’s one of the better guards in the country,” Bennett said. “But they can’t get to the lane as easy as they did [in the second half], and that put us in a hole that was tough.
“My goal is, hey, make a great player earn them. Make him hit tough shots, and there were too many shots in that stretch that weren’t contested or were too easy.”
Junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan started on Battle, but in the final minutes Bennett went with freshman Jontel Evans, probably the team’s best athlete. Evans hounded Battle but was called for two fouls in the last 51 seconds.
On the second, with the score 62-59, Evans appeared to have forced Battle into a double-dribble, but Hess whistled Evans for a personal. Battle’s two free frows made it a five-point game with 27.2 seconds left.
Sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg, who’d missed four of his previous six foul shots, hit two with 24.4 seconds remaining, and Zeglinski followed suit 13 seconds later. For all their flaws, the ‘Hoos battled to the end.
“Gut-wrenching loss, but they fought, they scrapped, they didn’t quit,” Bennett said.
“That was the one thing that — ‘encouraged’ might be too strong a word — but I was pleased that they didn’t die and guys kept fighting and stepped up and made some big shots.”
Walk-on forward Will Sherrill, coming off a career outing in the Cancun Challenge, didn’t score against Penn State, but the 6-9 junior contributed 4 rebounds, 1 assist and characteristically heady play in his 20 minutes.
Landesberg led the Cavaliers with 18 points. Junior forward Mike Scott had 17 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Scott didn’t hurt the Nittany Lions much, though, after a first half in which he went 6 for 6 from floor.
“I didn’t know if he could do that again,” DeChellis said, and he was correct. Scott missed 4 of 6 field-goal attempts in the second half.
In the end, though, defensive breakdowns, not missed shots, led to UVa’s demise.
“It’s a building process,” Bennett said. “Until your mentality switches and there’s genuine pride in your team defense and guys just learn how to outlast and be so physically and mentally tough on that defensive end, you’re going to have those.”
Penn State made history at UVa’s expense. The Nittany Lions became the first team from their conference to record victories in three consecutive Big Ten/ACC Challenges.