By Jeff White
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — As he left the interview room at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, UVa’s Tony Bennett turned directly into the path of his counterpart from Wake Forest, Dino Gaudio.
The coaches warmly greeted each other and shook hands.
“Tell your dad I said hi,” Gaudio said.
“I will,” Bennett replied. Then he added with a smile, “I told [the press] that after that game he’s going to disown me and claim you as his son.”
During his distinguished coaching career, Dick Bennett developed a rugged defense known as the Pack-Line, and teams around the nation use it today.
This is Wake’s third season in the Pack-Line, and Gaudio’s team plays some of the stingiest defense in the ACC.
This is UVa’s first season under the younger Bennett and its first playing the Pack-Line. Virginia remains a work in progress on defense, as the results Saturday at Joel Coliseum illustrated.
Virginia became the last ACC team to lose in conference play, falling 69-57 to Wake in a game that was a mismatch most of the way. The Demon Deacons led by 24 with eight minutes to play.
At halftime, the Wahoos (3-1, 12-5) had only 15 points and trailed by 19. Not since Nov. 29, 1993, had UVa scored so few points in a first half.
“It was a humbling experience,” said sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg, who scored 18 points before fouling out with 2:18 remaining.
“I don’t think we were getting too high on ourselves, but just in case we were, this was definitely a wakeup call. It’s not all sweet, you’re not going to win every game, we gotta battle every night. I think it’s something that’ll help us in the long run.”
The Deacons shot 52.3 percent from the floor against a UVa defense that broke down repeatedly, especially around the basket. Inside the 3-point arc, Wake was 20 for 34. Chas McFarland, a 7-0 senior who came in averaging 6.8 points, finished with 18 and often looked like a dominant big man, which he is not.
The ‘Hoos heated up late, cutting their deficit to 11 points with a 13-0 run. Even with that burst, though, UVa made only 33.8 percent of its field-goal attempts against the Deacons (4-2, 14-4) and their version of the Pack-Line.
“It’s hard to break down,” Tony Bennett said. “They do it well with their length, and this is their third year of playing this system defensively, and there just aren’t as many holes in it as I saw on our end. And I think as you get better defensively, your anticipation gets better, you understand the focus of it, and they certainly did a nice job.”
The loss ended the Cavaliers’ eight-game winning streak and dropped them into a tie for first in the ACC with Maryland, which beat N.C. State on Saturday night.
Next up for UVa is a Thursday night date with arch-rival Virginia Tech (2-2, 15-3) at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I think that’s the beauty of sports,” Bennett said. “You can’t be too discouraged [about a regular-season loss] or too elated if it goes well. We’ll have a day off, and then we prepare for the in-state rival and learn from the breakdowns and address those and get ready to play. That’s all you can do.”
The Wahoos traveled to Tobacco Road without one of their captains, senior guard Calvin Baker, who recently lost his starting job to freshman Jontel Evans. Bennett called it a “coach’s decision” and declined to publicly address Baker’s future in the program.
For much of the first half Saturday, UVa also played without its two best scorers — Landesberg and 6-8 junior Mike Scott — but not for disciplinary reasons. Landesberg sat for the final 12:28 and Scott for the last 7:53 of the half, each after picking up his second foul.
When Landesberg went to the bench, UVa trailed 15-6. But the ‘Hoos rallied, and Scott’s fastbreak layup made it 18-14 with 8:47 left.
Like many coaches, Bennett prefers not let a player risk picking up a third foul in the first half, and at that point it appeared Virginia, even without Landesberg, could reach halftime with a reasonable deficit, if not a lead. But after senior center Jerome Meyinsse made 1 of 2 free throws to pull UVa to 20-15 at the 6:04 mark, Wake scored the final 14 points of the half, the last three coming on a bomb by C.J. Harris as time expired.
“Usually I hold a guy out if he gets two fouls, and I just stuck to that,” Bennett said. “[The coaches] talked about it on the bench in one of our timeouts, and then all of the sudden there’s maybe two-and-a-half, three minutes left, and we said, ‘Boy, to put Sylven in back now might be foolish if he picked one up,’ and then they hit the last-second 3 of the half and it stretched out. “
Landesberg felt confident he could avoid collecting a third personal before halftime and told his coaches as much. Bennett opted not to gamble but later said, “I might have to reconsider my thinking about that. It’s something that you just try to have a feel for.”
If the Cavaliers’ defense was poor, their offense wasn’t any better. Among ACC teams, UVa came in ranked first in 3-point percentage (41.5) and second in free-throw percentage (76.3).
Against Wake, the ‘Hoos were 5 for 21 from beyond the arc and 8 for 16 from the line. Meanwhile, Deacons point guard Ish Smith, who came in shooting 44.4 percent from the line, made 7 of 10 free throws.
“It was just one of those days,” said junior guard Jeff Jones, who came off the bench to score 10 points for UVa, as did classmate Mustapha Farrakhan.
Jones and Farrakhan led Virginia’s late rally. Some of their teammates never found their touches.
Scott, who came in averaging 13.2 points and 7.6 rebounds, made 3 of 10 shots from the floor. He finished with 6 points and had more turnovers (3) than rebounds (2).
Sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski, who was booed every time he touched the ball, apparently because his father is a former Wake athlete, came in averaging 10.6 points. He had made at least two 3-pointers in each of his previous 11 games, but Zeglinski was 0 for 3 from long range Saturday and 0 for 5 overall.
“I think it was a mixture of [good defense by the Deacs and poor offense by UVa],” Zeglinski said. “They contested a lot of shots, but also we’ve made contested shots before.”
When Landesberg and Scott are out, Bennett said, the ‘Hoos “run the same stuff, we just don’t have quite as much firepower. Again, I thought we got some looks. Some of those shots, I could hear it smack the backboard first. They weren’t close, and a lot of that had to do with Wake’s ability to close on shooters with their length and not give us clean looks.
“But the missed layups and free throws, I can’t account for those. We needed to probably make some of those. It was hard for us. I thought we were a little stagnant offensively. They got us standing, and we missed shots. And our defense wasn’t good enough to hold us in there.”
The ultra-quick Smith has steadily polished his game since enrolling at Wake in 2006, and he’s now one of the most difficult players in the ACC to guard. Against UVa, the 6-0, 175-pound senior scored a game-high 21 points. He hit 7 of 10 shots from the floor and had 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks and only 2 turnovers in 38 minutes.
Bennett played in the NBA with former Wake star Muggsy Bogues. After the game Saturday, Bennett said, he spoke with Smith.
“I said, ‘You’re close to as fast as Muggsy,’ which is saying a lot,” Bennett said.
The teams meet again Feb. 6 at John Paul Jones Arena, and Bennett will be disappointed his team doesn’t play better in the rematch. At Joel Coliseum, the Cavaliers looked nothing like the team that stunned the ACC by opening with wins over N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Miami.
“There’s not a whole lot to say. I think we got outplayed early and often,” Bennett said. “They were really aggressive, they kind of hit us in the mouth with their play on the offensive glass, and we had way too many breakdowns defensively. And I think that affected us. They got so many easy hoops.
“You’re going to have games where you’re going to struggle to shoot the ball — and it showed at the free-throw line tonight – but usually our defense is good enough at least to keep us in there until we can get something going offensively. But that wasn’t the case today. And certainly some foul trouble hurt us.
“But credit to Wake Forest. They did the job. They were aggressive, they were ready. We made a nice run at the end, there was some effort shown, they didn’t die, but the game got out of hand too soon.”