By Jeff White
RALEIGH, N.C. — During timeouts at the RBC Center, what Tony Bennett saw in his players delighted UVa’s first-year basketball coach: the mental toughness and composure they’ve occasionally lacked this season.
The Cavaliers didn’t always play well in their ACC opener Saturday — for most of the first 30 minutes, in fact, they struggled — but they never surrendered.
“You could see in those kids, they want it so bad,” Bennett said. “In the timeouts they said, ‘This is why we run the hills. This is what this is about.’ And it was good to see it.”
Even more pleasing for Bennett was the final score of his first ACC game: Virginia 70, N.C. State 62.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here, and I just want these young men, as I said, to just keep knocking,” Bennett said. “Keep trying to get better and see where that takes us and be hard to beat. I want them to be really hard to play against, and hopefully we’re inching towards that. We still have a long way to go.”
With 12:30 remaining, Bennett’s ACC debut seemed likely to be a game he’d want to forget. The Wolfpack led by 10, and the Wahoos (1-0, 9-4) appeared headed for an ugly defeat to the team picked to finish last in the conference.
“We just had to get the ACC jitters out,” junior guard Jeff Jones said.
If jitters were the problem, they finally faded at the 12:21 mark, when sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski’s 3-pointer pulled the ‘Hoos to 43-36. The comeback was under way.
“It was a big shot, and I think that kind of sparked everything,” sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg said. “It got the energy back in the team on the bench, and it made us start to play better at both ends of the court.”
Landesberg made a few big shots himself. He led all scorers with 23 points, tying his season high. Two came on a runner in the lane that Landesberg, the ACC rookie of the year in 2008-09, shot with his right hand while drifting to his left.
It dropped through to make it 60-55 with 1:49 left.
“He’s kind of just willing the ball into the basket sometimes,” Zeglinski said. “Sometimes I find myself just watching him slice through the lane. He just made a ton of big shots, and I know he wasn’t feeling great.”
Bennett said: “Sylven was under the weather. He’s been sick. He locked in and overcame that.”
Landesberg made one 3-pointer. Most of his six other field goals came, as usual, around the basket.
“He has an uncanny ability or knack for floaters, off-balance shots — wrong foot, different hand — and that’s hard to guard,” Bennett said. “He gets in the lane and he gets shots off. Those were big-time plays.”
Landesberg said: “As soon as ACC play starts, something turns on. You just gotta get ready to go. I felt like a switch turned on, and I was just focused in on everything.”
On an afternoon when State (0-2, 11-5) made only 16 of 26 free throws — 9 for 16 in the second half — UVa was nearly perfect from the line. After junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan missed the first of two foul shots with 12:58 remaining, the ‘Hoos made their final 17.
“That definitely wins games,” Jones said.
Virginia finished 19 for 20 on free throws.
“We always work on those,” said forward Mike Scott, who made all four of his. “Coach says, ‘If you miss, you gotta run.’ We know what’s on the line. If you miss, you’re going to get on the line [and run]. That was just clutch out there.”
Scott, one of the ACC’s top post players, was uncharacteristically out of sync until the midpoint of the second half. He was settling for jump shots that missed the mark and struggling to stop State’s 6-8, 247-pound Tracy Smith (18 points, 9 rebounds).
“I forced a lot of shots,” said Scott, who was 1 for 5 in the first half. “They were rhythm, but Coach Bennett told me, ‘You can get those shots anytime.’ I just came out in the second half more aggressive. I said I was going to stop taking all the jump shots and go back to doing what I do best, working the post.”
Scott was still stuck on 2 points when he put up an airball on a turnaround jumper with 9:56 left. Thirty seconds later, however, he scored on a jump hook, and from that point Scott dominated offensively.
The 6-8, 239-pound junior, who finished with 14 points and 7 rebounds, put UVa ahead for good with 3:55 left, tipping in a Landesberg miss to make it 54-53. Equally important, in his coach’s eyes, Scott stepped up his defense late in the game.
So did the other Cavaliers. N.C. State shot only 39.3 percent from the floor in the second half.
“We really bogged down,” Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe said.
For most of the final 12 minutes, Bennett used a lineup that comprised Scott and four perimeter players: Landesberg, Zeglinski, Farrakhan and Jones. That’s the group that turned the game in UVa’s favor.
“You know there’s a risk sometimes on the glass defensively, if they take advantage, but you have the advantage offensively,” Bennett said.
Landesberg was able to beat bigger defenders to the basket, and “I thought we were a little scrappier and quicker, actually, on the defensive end and didn’t get beat up too bad on the glass with that,” Bennett said.
Lowe said: “While we let [the Cavaliers] make some plays on their end, we didn’t take advantage on the offensive end. This was an opportunity for us to go in the paint and get a foul.”
It didn’t happen. N.C. State’s big men include Smith, 6-9, 226-pound Dennis Horner and 6-8, 266-pound Richard Howell. They combined for only 7 points in the final 10 minutes as the Pack faded away.
“Our mental toughness was a disappointment,” Lowe said. “To get a lead and let down mentally was very disappointing.”
Five Cavaliers grabbed at least 5 rebounds, led by the 6-0 Zeglinski with a career-high 8. The mercurial Jones had only 1 rebound, but he contributed in other ways, coming off the bench to score 8 points in 18 minutes.
Jones’ first 3-pointer pulled Virginia to 45-39 with 11:10 to play. His second was more dramatic. After Scott’s two free throws at the 6:17 mark put the Cavaliers up 49-48 — their first lead of the second half — the Wolfpack answered with five straight points.
State had a chance to stretch its lead to six, but Smith missed an open look inside. At the other end, Zeglinski drove along the baseline and spotted Jones near the top of the key. Jones’ trey made it 53-52.
“My team needed me,” said Jones, who threw down a one-handed slam in the first half. “I was ready when my name was called. Those guys see me do that every day in practice.”
Virginia’s lead was only three when a defensive breakdown left Horner, who came in shooting 47.2 percent from 3-point range, uncovered beyond the arc with 2:15 left. He was probably too open, with too much time to think. Jones corraled the rebound when Horner’s shot went long.
“He can knock those down,” Landesberg said. “So when I saw him open, I just looked up and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And when it hit the far side of the rim, I was so happy.”
Next up for UVa is another challenge, a date with ACC rival Georgia Tech (1-1, 12-3). The 20th-ranked Yellow Jackets visit John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday night.
Bennett will probably wear a tie during the game. That’s been his custom at JPJ. On the road, however, he has eschewed neckwear this season, as he did home and away as Washington State’s coach.
Perhaps his choice of attire helped his players Saturday, Bennett suggested.
“You want them to have some confidence, and I think because I wasn’t wearing a tie, I was more relaxed,” he said with a smile. “So that’s probably why I had composure. That’s the key.”