By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Highlights abounded for the home team Monday night. Tristan Spurlock soared for two breakaway dunks in the final minute, and the seldom-used freshman forward was one of several UVa players who established season highs.
Some perspective, though, is needed. The opponent was not UNC Chapel Hill — or even UNC Wilmington.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, a fledgling Division I program, was the weakest foe UVa has hosted in the three-plus seasons that John Paul Jones Arena has been open.
That said, the Cavaliers did a lot of things well in a 68-37 rout witnessed by a smattering of fans, hardy souls who braved roads that in many places were still covered by snow and ice.
NJIT shot only 27.1 percent from the floor, partly because it missed numerous open shots and partly because of UVa’s stellar defense.
The game was the Wahoos’ first in 14 days, and first-year coach Tony Bennett didn’t like what he saw early.
“I don’t know if we thought we could just get it easy and throw a knockout punch,” Bennett said. “I just thought we were a little sloppy, a little disconnected. We’ll chalk it up to the break, but we have to keep improving, there’s no question.”
The Highlanders’ 37 points were the fewest scored by a men’s team at JPJ. They also were the fewest allowed by UVa since a 61-37 win over Clemson on Jan. 11, 1995.
Two days earlier, NJIT had acquitted itself well in a 71-62 loss at Rutgers. But the Highlanders’ second-year coach, Jim Engles, knew all about the brand of basketball favored by the Bennetts — father Dick and son Tony — and he was concerned.
The Bennett “name basically signifies defense,” Ingles said Monday night, “and one of our worst things right now is our offense. We have a very hard time scoring. He could probably buy a couple snowblowers with the money I have spent on his defensive videos. I was worried about that.”
Thirteen minutes in, however, the Highlanders led 15-14. In the stands, fans looked on anxiously. On the sideline, Bennett’s displeasure was impossible to miss.
“Against that team, there was no way that we should have been only up by one point,” junior forward Will Sherrill said afterward, then corrected himself.
“Actually, we were losing, I think, at that point.”
At the 7:24 mark of the first half, with the score 15-14, Bennett called a 30-second timeout.
When play resumed, junior guard Jeff Jones missed a jump shot, but Sherrill tracked down the road, dribbled out to the right wing and found himself uncovered.
Sherrill’s 3-pointer — his first since Nov. 25 — made it 17-15, and Virginia (5-4) led the rest of the way.
“It felt good to get back on the court,” freshman point guard Jontel Evans said. “We had real competitive practices, and everybody was getting after it and ready to go against another opponent.
“We were rusty at first. We got that timeout, and Coach Bennett barked at us, got us going, and when we came back out, we turned it up defensively.”
At the break it was 32-19, and the Cavaliers didn’t let up after intermission. For the final two minutes, Bennett’s lineup consisted of Spurlock, senior swingman Solomon Tat and walk-on guards Tom Jonke, Thomas Kody and Doug Browman.
Spurlock played the final 5:05 and finished with a career-best 6 points.
“I was happy for him,” Bennett said. “I just challenge him to continue to work and keep battling. Again, it sounds like a company line, but the hardest thing as a coach is to look at kids who want to play desperately and work hard and not be able to give them what they want. He has a nice upside certainly, and I’m glad that we could carve out some minutes for him.”
The Cavaliers’ other freshman, Evans, helped turn the game into a rout. In 23 minutes, the 5-11 point guard made 3 of 4 shots from the floor, including a jump shot, and and totaled 7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 assists and 0 turnovers.
“I don’t too caught up in the stat line, but that is a good stat line,” Bennett said.
The points, rebounds and minutes were career highs for Evans, who’d also impressed in the Cavaliers’ previous game, a Dec. 7 loss at Auburn.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and it’s showing,” sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “His decision-making has been pretty good, and you can see his explosiveness on offense and on defense. So he’s playing really well. He’s been a big help for the team and a huge boost.”
Against Auburn, Bennett had started Zeglinski, Sherrill, Sylven Landesberg, Mustapha Farrakhan and Jerome Meyinsse.
Against NJIT (3-8), Bennett rewarded senior guard Calvin Baker and sophomore center Assane Sene, who have practiced well this month, and gave them their first starts of the season, moving Farrakhan and Meyinsse to the bench.
Baker “really stepped up and led [in practice],” Bennett said. “He was real vocal, did a lot of the intangibles, and I thought that I wanted to reward him for that. Assane is getting stronger, becoming more active.”
Baker responded with a season-high 9 points, and the 7-0 Sene grabbed a season-high 11 rebounds and blocked two shots. Sene’s 28 minutes were the most he’s played in a season that for him has included a three-game suspension and an ankle injury.
The game was the Wahoos’ first at JPJ since Nov. 30, when they lost 69-66 to Penn State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. They were scheduled to play UNCW there Saturday night, but the game was postponed because of the record-setting storm that hit Central Virginia.
By Monday night, Zeglinski said, he and his teammates “were all pretty anxious to beat up on somebody else instead of ourselves, because we’ve been competing pretty hard in practice.
“We came out a little sluggish, but I think we bounced back pretty nicely in the second half. We played pretty good defense.”
Six players scored at least 7 points apiece for UVa, led by Jones (11). Sherrill finished with 8, his best offensive showing since an 18-point outburst against Cleveland State in the Cancun Challenge.
“It really feels good to make a couple shots and get the touch back,” Sherrill said.
It was the kind of game in which Mike Scott typically would have posted a double-double, but the Cavaliers’ best big man remains sidelined by a high-ankle sprain.
Virginia hosts Hampton (2-9) on Wednesday night, and Scott (13.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg) may miss a third straight game.
“Certainly we need him,” Bennett said.