By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Given the way UNC Wilmington had bombed in 3-pointers all night, it was a wonder Chad Tomko’s prayer from halfcourt wasn’t answered at John Paul Jones Arena.
Fortunately for UVa, Tomko’s heave bounced off the backboard and onto the court. And with no time showing on the clock and the scoreboard showing them ahead 69-67, the Cavaliers could finally exhale Monday night, along with the crowd of 10,420.
“These are the type of games that you just hope that you can pull out when you’re not playing your best,” sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said, “still just being able to grind it out at the end of the game, and people step up and make big plays.
“And that’s exactly what we did tonight. We weren’t playing great. Everybody saw we were sloppy. It’s good to get a win like that every once in awhile.”
The Wahoos (12-4) have won eight straight games, their longest such streak since 2003-04. Their latest victory did not come easily.
“I think we just forgot who we were,” said senior center Jerome Meyinsse, who made 8 of 9 from the line and fnished with a career-high 14 points.
“We forgot what makes us good: being defensively sound and not turning the ball over. We didn’t do those things tonight, and it made it a close game.”
It didn’t have to be so tight. A 3-pointer by Zeglinski put the ‘Hoos up 47-31 with 14:49 remaining, and they appeared ready to break the Seahawks (6-12). But guard Ahmad Grant — the same UNCW reserve guard who came in averaging 6.5 points — hit five 3-pointers in the final 14:19 against a UVa defense that did not lack for hustle or effort.
Grant’s fourth trey gave the Seahawks a 64-60 lead with 2:55 to play and stunned the crowd. Virginia answered with seven straight points, only to see Grant tie the game at 67-67 with another trey. It came with 34.7 seconds left, which meant the shot clock was off when the Cavaliers, who had not won a game by fewer than seven points this season, took possession.
With 14 seconds showing, first-year coach Tony Bennett called a timeout and put 6-8 forward Mike Scott back in the game. That gave UVa a lineup of Meyinsse, Scott, Zeglinski, point guard Jontel Evans and sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg.
They ran what Zeglinski called “a bread-and-butter” play. Landesberg curled around a pick set by the 6-9, 233-pound Meyinsse and caught a pass from Scott at the left elbow. With no defender in his face, Landesberg put up a 15-foot jumper that dropped through with 2.2 seconds left.
“I guess they thought I was going to drive it,” said Landesberg, who led Virginia with 19 points. UNCW’s center “didn’t come out to me. He just stayed back, and I got the space, and I was able to raise up and shoot it. But I was definitely surprised [to be that open]. They were in my jersey the whole night.”
The game-winning shot was the second of Landesberg’s college career. In a 77-75 victory over South Florida at JPJ last season, he scored with 13 seconds left.
“It feels amazing,” Landesberg said a smile Monday night. “I kind of know how Kobe feels every now and then when he hits his.”
Bennett applauded the Seahawks’ effort, as did their coach, Benny Moss.
“With a minute and half left we are down two and get three point-blank shots and none of them go in,” Moss said. “But again, we didn’t drop our head. We hung in there … Landesberg made a big play, and that is why he is one of the best players in the ACC. He made the play to win the game.”
The teams originally were scheduled to meet Dec. 19 at JPJ, but that game was snowed out. The makeup featured dramatic runs by each team.
After Virginia went up 14-9 in the first half, UNCW responded with 15 straight points, a spurt capped by Jeremy Basnight’s second trey. Not to be outdone, the ‘Hoos answered with a 20-0 run, and if not for Tomko’s off-balance 3-pointer in the final seconds, the Seahawks would have gone scoreless for the last 10:41 of the half.
The second half included a 17-2 run by UNCW, which finished 11 for 24 from beyond the arc. Virginia wasn’t nearly as sharp, committing 10 of its 11 turnovers after intermission.
“I just thought we kind of lost our way in that second half,” Bennett said.
“I think we got too lackadaisical,” Meyinsse said. “We started turning the ball over. We started getting soft on defense, and that allowed them to climb back in the game, and they just hit shot after shot and started building momentum.”
Zeglinski said: “We just got complacent. I think we took our foot off the pedal a little bit. They’re a streaky shooting type team. They can heat it up real quick, as they showed.”
In 30 minutes, Zeglinski contributed 10 points, 5 assists, 2 steals and a game-high 8 rebounds, no small feat for a 6-0 guard. He made two 3-pointers, extending his streak of games with at least two treys to 11, and also did a slick Globetrotters impression with UVa up 66-64.
After three misses inside by UNCW, the rebound was knocked toward midcourt, and Zeglinski dived for the ball. He came up with it and, with Seahawks swarming, deftly kept his dribble alive while calling time out.
“I just did what I had to do,” Zeglinski said. “I knew we needed that loose ball.”
The ‘Hoos were coming off back-to-back wins over ranked opponents, and their reserves, led by junior guards Jeff Jones and Mustapha Farrakhan, had sparkled in each of those wins. Virginia’s bench chipped in only 10 points against UNCW, another reason the game was so close.
“That was disappointing,” Bennett said. “I know those guys are disappointed, but we’ll learn from it, certainly.”
The game was the third in six nights for UVa. All three were at JPJ. Next up for Virginia, which leads the ACC with a 3-0 record, is a Saturday date with Wake Forest (2-2, 12-4) in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The Seahawks were the last non-conference team UVa will face during the regular season.
“I don’t think we took them for granted, but from here on out there’s nobody to take for granted, so that’s a moot point,” Bennett said.