By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the last second ticked off the clock, Sylven Landesberg flung the basketball toward the ceiling of John Paul Jones Arena, and the crowd, already on its feet, roared once again.
Tony Bennett’s team didn’t win any championships Wednesday night, but his rebuilding project at UVa took another significant step forward.
Four nights after opening their ACC schedule with an upset of N.C. State in Raleigh, the Cavaliers toppled No. 20 Georgia Tech, a tall, talented team coming off a win over Duke.
About two hours later, North Carolina lost at Clemson, and that left only one team unbeaten in ACC play: Virginia (2-0, 10-4).
That would be the same Virginia team picked to finish second to last in the 12-team league.
“We told people from the beginning, we’re going to shock a lot of people,” junior guard Jeff Jones said after UVa’s 82-75 win over Georgia Tech.
“I think they predicted us to be 11th, but we just said we’re not going to worry about that. We’re going to keep working and prove people wrong. It’s the first step in what we want to do.”
The Wahoos extended their winning streak to six games, and they’re 2-0 in the ACC for the first time since 1994-95, when Jason Williford, now one of Bennett’s assistants, played for the program’s first Jeff Jones.
“That’s a long time ago,” Bennett said with a smile when reminded of Williford’s playing career.
Lost in the postgame talk about the ACC start was this fact: Fourteen games into their first season under Bennett, the ‘Hoos have equaled their victory total of 2008-09, when they went 10-18.
“I’m sure we’re surprising a lot of people, a lot of our doubters,” sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “But we’re going to just keep doing what we do, knowing who we are.”
In Raleigh last weekend, N.C. State led by four points when its best post player, Tracy Smith, missed an open look inside late in the second half. At the other end, Jones drilled a 3-pointer, staggering the Wolfpack.
“You need those defining moments in a game,” Bennett said.
Another such sequence occurred late in the second half Wednesday night. With Virginia leading 69-63, Landesberg missed with the shot clock about to expire, but center Jerome Meyinsse ripped down the rebound.
Meyinsse was fouled and went to the line for a one-and-one with 2:39 left. He missed, but the rebound bounced directly to Landesberg, giving the ‘Hoos a new shot clock.
It had almost run out when Landesberg passed to the 6-0 Zeglinski, who buried a deep trey over 6-5 Iman Shumpert to push UVa’s lead to nine.
“I think that was the turning point in the game,” Meyinsse said.
Zeglinski said: “I told Sylven, ‘When we get low in the shot clock, my man’s kind of cheating in, and I’m going to loop behind him.’ And [Landesberg] made a nice read, and fortunately I was able to get enough arc on the ball. I needed the whole rim to get it to go in, but it went in.”
Against N.C. State, the Cavaliers made 19 of 20 free throws. Against the Yellow Jackets (1-2, 12-4), Virginia was 23 for 26 from the line. Equally impressive, the ‘Hoos turned the ball over only seven times.
“Coach always preaches being sound with it,” junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan said. “Don’t make silly mistakes, and just be sure with the basketball. And I think everybody did a great job today.”
Landesberg, the ACC rookie of the year in 2008-09, was his usual self Wednesday night, making all nine of his free throws and totaling 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Meyinsse’s performance was more of a revelation.
To combat a frontcourt led by Gani Lawal (6-9, 234 pounds) and Derrick Favors (6-10, 246), Bennett inserted Meyinsse in the starting lineup, and the 6-9, 233-pound senior responded with his finest game as a Cavalier.
“We needed his physical presence,” Bennett said.
Meyinsse finished with a season-high 8 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists in 20 minutes and played rugged defense against Lawal (12 points, 4 boards).
“Jerome was huge all night,” Zeglinski said. “He did a great job on Gani, who’s obviously a pro. Gani Lawal, he’s a beast down there, and Jerome did a great job keeping him in check and off the offensive boards.”
Meyinsse said: “I just tried not to give [Lawal] easy buckets. He made some tough turnaround shots, but I just wanted to make it as hard as possible.”
Tech shot 54.8 percent from the floor in the first half. Bennett was more pleased with his team’s defense after intermission, especially in the post. Many of the shots the Jackets made, especially Lawal and 6-8 senior Zachery Peacock (19 points), were anything but easy.
“I’m very thankful, and that’s a heck of a team,” Bennett said. “They’re a load inside. We made them make shots. A couple of those post moves, fadeaways that they made in the second half, I’ll live with those.”
It’s no longer a surprise when Farrakhan sparkles, but he elevated his game again Wednesday night. In 23 minutes off the bench, he made 4 of 8 shots from the floor and 6 of 6 from the line. Farrakhan finished with 15 points and tied his career highs in assists (4) and steals (3), with no turnovers.
“He’s an emotional player,” Bennett said. “He plays off of emotion, and when he’s playing within himself, kind of letting the game come and using his energy on the defensive end and being aggressive with good decisions, that’s when I think he plays his best.
“I’ve just been kind of talking to him about that, saying, ‘This is what I expect of you. This is your role, and embrace it.’ And he’s done a good job with it.”
Junior forward Mike Scott led UVa in the post with 12 points and 6 rebounds, though his showmanship on a first-half dunk didn’t go over well with his coaches.
Jones scored 9 points and, as he had in Raleigh, showed a flair for the dramatic.
In the 11-0 run that gave the ‘Hoos the lead for good in the second half, Jones made the signature basket, a 3-pointer from the top of the key. That put Virginia up 63-59 with 6:51 to play.
“He’s a weapon with his shot,” Bennett said.
The players weren’t Virginia’s only weapons Wednesday. The crowd of 8,924 was well below capacity at 14,593-seat JPJ, but it made its presence known from the start.
“That’s probably the best team we’ve played up to this point, and there’s a lot of emotion in here,” Bennett said. “I’m starting to get a feel of what the arena’s like when the crowd gets into it. It can be a tremendous advantage.
“Our kids were tired at the end, but I thought that gave us more energy. I think that helped us last and fight a little harder, so I give credit certainly to the atmosphere and then the mental stamina and toughness of our kids.”
Scott said: “That’s that sixth man we always talk about it. It’s always good to have the crowd into it. It fires us up, and I think it definitely helped tonight.”
With the start of the second semester approaching, more students are expected Saturday night when ACC rival Miami (1-2, 15-2) visits JPJ. Virginia will enter that game as the conference’s first-place team, but Bennett doesn’t want his players to lose perspective.
“It’s early,” he said. “I’ve said it all along, “Don’t get too up, don’t get too down.’ This is two games into the conference. I’m just glad we came back off of a nice win at N.C. State. We protected home court and executed, but as far as being 2-0 …”
He paused before finishing his thought.
“It sures beats 1-1 or 0-2, so we’ll take it.”