By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If all goes as planned at UVa, there will be too many wins over top-25 opponents to count during Tony Bennett’s tenure as men’s basketball coach.
There had to be a first, though, and it came Wednesday night before a fired-up crowd of 9,444 at John Paul Jones Arena.
The opponent was 24th-ranked Alabama-Birmingham, which entered on a 10-game winning streak. The Blazers left on the wrong side of a 72-63 outcome, and when the final horn sounded, Bennett’s players celebrated at midcourt with chest bumps and hugs.
“I’m just happy and proud of our guys, because they battled,” said Bennett, who came to Virginia last spring after three seasons as Washington State’s head coach. “That was an effort win, and I’ve been waiting to see something like that.”
Sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg said: “It was a tough game the whole game. We didn’t get anything handed to us. Everything we got, we earned.”
With 12:54 left, UAB (11-2) scored to extend its lead to 50-43, and it appeared that UVa’s early-season struggles against teams not considered low-major or mid-major would continue. But the Wahoos (7-4) ran off seven straight points to pull even, and a minute later they went up 53-52 on a trey by junior guard Mustapha Farrrakhan.
The lead was the first for the ‘Hoos since the 15:00 mark of the opening half, and they never relinquished it.
In the final nine minutes, numerous heroes stepped forward for UVa:
*Senior center Jerome Meyinsse started the comeback with a turnaround jumper, a shot that’s definitely not his trademark.
*First-year guard Jontel Evans hit the first 3-pointer of his college career to pull the Cavaliers to 50-48 and then, in the final minute, made two clutch free throws.
*Farrakhan made the go-ahead trey but, more important, played lockdown defense on UAB star Elijah Millsap, who seems likely to join his brother Paul in the NBA one day.
*Sophomore Sammy Zeglinski was fouled while sinking a trey in front of the UVa bench and added the free throw to complete a four-point play that made it 57-52.
*Junior forward Mike Scott, playing for the first time since Nov. 30, scored 6 points in the final 5:14 and gave the Cavaliers the interior presence they desperately had been seeking.
*Landesberg twice assisted Scott on baskets in the final 2:35 and made two free throws that gave the ‘Hoos a 67-61 lead with 49 seconds left.
UAB led 35-30 at halftime after shooting 54.8 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes. The Blazers’ accuracy dropped to 39.3 percent in the second half.
“I like it that I think we won it with our defense in the second half,” Bennett said. “I’ll have to watch the tape, but that always makes me happy.”
In an arena whose capacity is nearly 15,000, there were thousands of empty seats. But the fans who showed up made themselves heard, particularly after a controversial foul on Meyinsse with 11:51 to play that also incensed Bennett and his assistants.
“We scheduled this game because we thought the crowd would be bad, with no students here, and that would give us an edge,” Blazers coach Mike Davis said. “But they came out of the woodwork tonight and gave the team a lot of energy. It’s not a home-court advantage unless you have a good crowd, and they had one here tonight.”
Farrakhan said: “It was an awesome atmosphere. Words can’t even describe how it felt out there. It was beautiful. Hopefully that can continue. It really helped energize the players.”
For the first 20 minutes, the fans were treated to the Elijah Millsap Show. A 6-6, 210-pound guard, Millsap is a junior who transferred to UAB from Louisiana-Lafayette. Working primarily against Landesberg, Millsap tied a JPJ record for an opposing player with 17 first-half points.
“In the first half we couldn’t handle him, and he kind of made it look easy, and I thought we made it harder for him [after intermission],” Bennett said.
To say the ‘Hoos shut down Millsap would be inaccurate. He scored 10 points in the second half.
“But he had to work for it, and I thought our defense really rallied in the second half,” Bennett said.
No. 2 led the charge. At 6-4, 175, he’s considerably smaller than Millsap, but Farrakhan is quick and athletic, and he accepted the challenge given him by Bennett.
“We said, ‘Hey, look, our four [other] guys are going to play the system. You go out and you have freedom’ — I’m not going to say it was a box-and-one or a pack-and-one — but it was like, ‘You try to make it hard for him to get touches, and other guys will adhere to the rules. You’ve got to take him out of the game,'” Bennett said. “And I thought he made [Millsap] work.”
Farrakhan said: “He’s a real good player. He was bigger than me, he’s a little bit taller than me, and he was very aggressive … I was just trying to make it difficult for him, force him into tough shots.”
Landesberg, the ACC’s rookie of the year in 2008-09, led the Cavaliers with 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 block. One of his assists came on a play that, Landesberg said afterward, he would not have made as a freshman.
With Virginia leading 61-59 and the outcome still very much in doubt, Landesberg drove toward the basket, drew two defenders and then fed Scott for a shot clock-beating layup.
“That was just Sylven being a player,” said Scott, who’d missed the previous three games with a high-ankle sprain. “I was just at the right place at the right time.”
Landesberg said: “Last season I definitely would have never saw that. That pass definitely came from maturing and just being more comfortable with the players.”
Scott was able to practice for the first time Sunday, and he estimated he was 85 percent by Wednesday night. He came off the bench to contribute 10 points and 7 rebounds in 23 minutes. Had the 6-8 239-pounder not played, UAB might have run away with this one.
“He’s a threat, and I think we’re a bit of a different team when you have him for an inside-outside attack,” Bennett said. “He has a nice feel. I’m looking forward to him getting stronger and stronger, because there’s some things we’re doing offensively that I think will really benefit him.”
UVa fans have come to expect shining moments from Landesberg and Scott. Evans’ play was something of a revelation. The 5-11 point guard from Bethel High in Hampton had been steadily improving, but he elevated his game against the Blazers.
The final box shows Evans with a career-high 9 points (on 3-for-4 shooting), 3 assists and 2 steals. The steals, however, were anything but routine. In each case, Evans darted forward like a cobra to strip the ball from a UAB dribbler.
“When you can have a guy who can heat up the ball to initiate your defense, that makes a difference,” Bennett said. “I can’t tell you, playing in this system, when you have a guy that can just really light up the ball, what that does for the guys behind him.”
Evans said: “It felt like I was in high school again, ripping a guy at halfcourt and then getting two points. I love doing stuff like that. And when I did that, the crowd erupted, and it gave me more confidence as the game went on.”
Virginia shot better from beyond the 3-point arc (6 for 13) than UAB did from the free-throw line (5 for 15). Of the Cavaliers who hit treys, only Evans was a surprise to the Blazers’ coaching staff. He’s not known for his outside shooting — Evans had attempted only one 3-pointer before Wednesday nigh — but he took a pass from Farrakhan and calmly drilled a trey from the left corner with the shot clock about to expire.
“We work on that every day in practice, driving and kicking,” Evans said. “It was a wide-open shot for me, and I just felt confident and knocked it down.”
With 34.6 seconds left, Evans had two wide-open 15-footers. He hit both free throws to make it 69-63 and all but seal the victory for the Wahoos.
Coming in, Evans was 1 for 2 from the line, and he probably would not have been his teammates’ — or his coaches’ — choice to take such pressure shots.
“Jeff Jones was on me all week in practice, calling me Shaq, because I was missing in practice, and that just was running through my mind,” Evans said, smiling. “I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to hit these.’ I felt confident and knocked both of them down.”
And so the Cavaliers will enter 2010 in high spirits. Their next game is Tuesday night against Texas-Pan American at JPJ.
Bennett, as coaches are wont to do, kept the victory in perspective. He noted that “just because we had a win over a top-25 team doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re set.’ We’ve got to come back and grind it out in practice and continue to work, but it validates it a little bit and it gives them some hope. These kids haven’t had too many of those, so I was very thankful for that, and again, proud to see them hang tough.”