By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At game’s end, there was no outpouring of emotion from the UVa players this time, just the satisfaction of young men whose faith in themselves and their new coach had been justified again.
Virginia rallied to beat No. 20 Georgia Tech in men’s basketball Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, and the final horn set off a celebration among Tony Bennett’s players.
In the same building, UVa dominated No. 23 Miami from start to finish Saturday night. The Cavaliers came in as the ACC’s first-place team, and they looked the part in a 75-57 romp before 11,413 fans at JPJ.
“One of the things that Coach Bennett preaches to us is humility,” senior center Jerome Meyinsse said. “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Georgia Tech was a big win, but we knew we had to come out and play hard and play tough, and we were in for another battle tonight. We all came out focused, and it showed tonight on the court.”
Bennett said: “I wasn’t sure how we’d respond to a little prosperity, and that was a good step.”
Virginia (3-0, 11-4) responded like a team that has no desire to relinquish its lead in the ACC.
“The guys showed some good energy,” Bennett said. “They were tired, but they fought through it. You just want to outlast your opponent. Sometimes if you guard hard, you screen hard, as the game wears on, hopefully you can see an edge.”
The crowd — the largest for a men’s game at JPJ this season — loved it. Fans were in their seats by tipoff, which isn’t always the case, and they provided the homecourt advantage the Wahoos have lacked at times this season.
“It was jumping in there tonight,” Bennett said. “That atmosphere — I don’t know what the attendance was — but it was loud, and that energizes you.
“It was nice to see that many orange shirts. You could kind of feel it when you walked in. It was a lot warmer in there. I know I was sweating.”
Sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said: “That was ridiculous. I don’t remember it being that loud in a long time. It was awesome. I didn’t want the game to end. The crowd, the whole night was so loud. They really fueled us tonight.”
Miami (1-3, 15-3) couldn’t wait to get out of the Commonwealth. The ‘Canes won 15 of their first 16 games, but they’ve been blown out twice since then. Miami lost 81-66 at Virginia Tech on Wednesday night.
“It’s been a tough trip,” Hurricanes coach Frank Haith said.
For the ‘Hoos, who host UNC Wilmington (6-11) on Monday night, the victory was their seventh in a row, their longest winning streak since 2006-07. They’re 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since 1994-95, when they won their first four conference games. They also improved to 3-0 against ranked foes this season.
“What I want to stress about this Virginia team is they have very good players,” Haith said, “and Sylven Landesberg is an outstanding player, and I knew coming into this season that UVa would be good because they have the players.”
Haith might have known that, but his opinion was not widely shared. The Cavaliers finished 10-18 in 2008-09, their final year under Dave Leitao, and they were picked to finish 11th in the ACC this season.
Fifteen games in, with most of the same players, Virginia has surpassed its 2008-09 victory total.
“I think they’re a year older and a little more mature, and they’re hungry, with good character,” Bennett said. “They want to do well.”
Landesberg said: “Winning is a lot of fun. Last year was tough. We had a lot of tough losses. We’re showing a lot of maturity this year, being able to pull close wins out and being able to execute at both ends of the court.”
A 6-6 swingman from Queens, N.Y., Landesberg was the best story — and often the only positive story — for the Cavaliers in 2008-09, when he was named ACC rookie of the year. Support is coming in waves this season from players such as Zeglinski, Meyinsse, Mike Scott, Mustapha Farrakhan, Will Sherrill, Jeff Jones and Jontel Evans, one of Virginia’s two freshmen.
Zeglinski played a magnificent all-around game Saturday night, totaling 10 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and no turnovers in 26 minutes.
Evans made his first career start, and he’s likely to stay in the first five. The 5-11 point guard from Hampton is UVa’s best on-the-ball defender, and Evans hounded whomever he covered Saturday night.
He ended the first half in dramatic fashion, tracking down a loose ball and lofting a rainbow jumper that dropped through at the buzzer to make it 33-21, Virginia. He finished with 4 points, 4 assists, 1 steal, no turnovers and a career-best 7 rebounds.
“I feel like I’m starting to pick things up in the practice. I feel like I’m getting better,” Evans said. “I’m buying into [Bennett’s] system. If you just do what the coaches say, good things will come. That’s what I’m trying to do. Just do what the coaches want me to do. Just follow direction.
“If they tell me something, just say, ‘Yes, Coach. No, Coach.’ Not talking back. Just trying to be a good player, a good teammate and everything.”
For the first six games of UVa’s winning streak, Calvin Baker started. But Miami’s guards worried Bennett, and so he turned to Evans.
“He can really ignite our defense,” Bennett said, “when you have a point guard who can set your defense and bring that kind of energy and make it hard on the ball-handler.
“And he wasn’t even going down the floor like he usually does to pick up the ball, but he was meeting it. And I told him before the game, I said, ‘You have to make sure that guy knows it’s going to be a war against you.'”
Virginia scored the game’s first six points, bringing the crowd to its feet and prompting a Miami timeout 106 seconds in. The Cavaliers’ offense sputtered later in the half, but it picked up after intermission, and Bennett was happy to see his players’ shots falling.
“But I’d like to talk about that first half defensively,” he said. “That, I thought, was what I’d been waiting to see. Offensively we weren’t great, but I thought defensively it was one of our better performances, just in terms of how active we were, stopping them in transition and making them work. That’s what I want to keep seeing.”
Miami shot 21.7 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes. The ‘Canes heated up, relatively speaking, in the second half, but overall they hit only 17 of 54 (31.5 percent) from the floor.
Bennett’s players are taking more pride in their defense, and few things make him happier.
“When they get beat, you see them looking at you and saying, ‘That was my fault,'” he said. “Not in a way like, ‘My bad,’ like everybody says, but ‘I knew I shouldn’t have let that happen, I’ll get it next time.'”
The ACC’s best 3-point-shooting team was true to form Saturday night. Led by Jones, a 6-4 junior, UVa made 6 of 14 from beyond the arc. Jones was 3 for 3, and his final trey, which pushed Virginia’s lead to 67-51 with 3:18 remaining, seemed to double the noise level inside JPJ.
“I just stay ready. I’m focused on the task at hand,” Jones said. “My role is to come in and be a spark off the bench, be a scoring threat. And that’s what Coach Bennett told me.
“I think that’s important about this team: Everybody knows their role. And that’s important. Whenever everybody knows their role, it makes everything much easier. Everybody’s confident out there. Everybody’s playing free and confident.”
Farrakhan said: “We’re just rolling on to the next game. Just trying to stay humble and keep working hard.”