By Jeff White
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — With 3:58 remaining Sunday night, play halted for the fourth and final TV timeout of the second half, and the teams returned to their respective benches.
Virginia led North Carolina 65-50 at the storied Dean E. Smith Center. Three nights earlier, however, UVa had led Virginia Tech by 10 with three minutes left in the second half at John Paul Jones Arena, only to collapse and end up losing in overtime.
“And that was one thing we talked about in the huddle [Sunday night],” first-year coach Tony Bennett recalled. “I said, ‘Now, you’ve been in this spot before. Show me you’ve learned. Play with composure. If they hit tough shots, OK.'”
The Wahoos didn’t crack this time. Sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski’s fourth 3-pointer of the game made it 68-50 with 3:33 left. His fifth made it 73-56 with 72 seconds remaining, after which UNC coach Roy Williams conceded, inserting a quintet of walk-ons.
The final score in this ACC game — UVa 75, UNC 60 — reflected a remarkably poised performance by a team coming off a gut-wrenching loss to its biggest rival.
Against the defending NCAA champion Tar Heels, Virginia (4-2, 13-6) never trailed and rarely faltered. Memories of their loss to the Hokies drove the ‘Hoos.
“Failure is the greatest teacher, and I think it taught us well in this instance,” Bennett said.
The victory was the Cavaliers’ first in Chapel Hill since Jan. 12, 2002, and their first over UNC anywhere since Jan. 19, 2006.
“It’s really gratifying to come down here and get a win, with all the history in this gym,” Zeglinski said after scoring a season-high 19 points. “It was just fun. It was fun to play here, and it was even better to get a win.”
Bennett spent six seasons at Washington State before coming to UVa last spring, so he’s not as well-versed as some in the history of this series. To better understand the significance of his team’s feat Sunday night, Bennett needed only to check with Jason Williford, Cory Alexander or Mike Curtis.
Williford is one of the Bennett’s assistants, and Curtis is the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach. Alexander provides analysis on radio broadcasts of UVa games. Each played at Virginia, and none had been part of a victory at UNC until Sunday night.
The Cavaliers’ record in Chapel Hill is now 6-63. At the Dean Dome, they’re 3-21. Bennett, however, is 1-0.
“I feel fortunate,” he said. “I’m happy for our guys. I always say I just want them to compete and keep getting better. I got a big picture in mind, but for me in my first trip to come away with a victory, I know that doesn’t happen all the time.”
The Wahoos’ margin of victory was their largest ever in Chapel Hill. For that, Sylven Landesberg deserves much of the credit. The sophomore swingman pierced UNC’s defense time and time again, making 11 of 18 shots from the floor.
“Sylven played his heart out,” UVa forward Mike Scott said.
Landesberg finished with 29 points and added 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 1 blocked shot. He was 7 for 8 from the line.
“Sylven was just showing off at the offensive end,” Zeglinski said. “He was doing everything: making jump shots, getting in the lane, getting fouled. He’s a great player. Offensively, I don’t think anybody’s better in the ACC.”
Landesberg had not been nearly as sharp against Virginia Tech, especially late in the game. He scored 18 points against the Hokies but finished with 6 turnovers, matching his career high, and missed the front end of a crucial one-and-one in overtime.
“It was definitely a lot of motivation,” Landesberg said. “I don’t think I closed the Virginia Tech game out the way I should have. I definitely had my head hung after that. I spoke to my father for a long time, and he told me to just build off of that.
“I told him it was tough. I felt like the game was my fault when we lost it, just turnovers, missed free throws. I took all that. I made sure that wouldn’t happen again, so I came out here with something to prove.”
Landesberg’s and Zeglinski’s fellow starters also shined against the Heels (2-4, 13-8), who were coming off a convincing road win over N.C. State.
Senior center Jerome Meyinsse had 7 points, 5 rebounds and a career-high 3 blocks. First-year point guard Jontel Evans had a career-best 6 assists. Scott, a 6-8 junior, totaled 11 points, 5 boards, 3 assists and 2 steals.
The interior defense of Meyinsse and Scott helped the ‘Hoos limit UNC big men Deon Thompson and Ed Davis to a combined 11 points. Scott also made a critical shot in the final seconds of the first half. After Carolina swingman William Graves’ fourth 3-pointer made it 32-30 and woke up the slumbering crowd of 14,437, Scott answered with a trey that silenced the home fans.
“I think that just gave us a little boost going into halftime,” said Scott, who’s 2 for 2 from beyond the arc this season.
The Heels scored the first basket of the second half, a dunk by Davis that made it 35-32, but UVa responded with its second-largest run of the season.
Against UNC Wilmington on Jan. 18, the Cavaliers had scored 20 unanswered points. Against UNC Chapel Hill, they ran off 18 straight points, the final three coming from Meyinsse, who took a pass from Zeglinski and soared for a vicious slam on which he was fouled. Meyinsse added the free throw to make it 53-32 with 14:20 left.
“It was really exciting to see what this team is capable of,” Zeglinski said.
Meyinsse said: “It was a great victory. I remember my first time coming here, my first year, I was just in awe of all the banners that were in the rafters, and I didn’t get a chance to play. This is my first time playing, and I came out with the win in my first time playing at North Carolina, so I’m really happy.”
Not so upbeat afterward was the Tar Heels’ coach, who opened his remarks by congratulating Bennett.
“He’s a real neat young man and he’s done a great job with his basketball team,” Williams said. “I haven’t done a great job with my basketball team.
“I’m about as frustrated and disappointed as I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’ve been very fortunate to have some great moments, but this is definitely not one of them.”
Virginia is tied with Maryland (4-2, 14-6) for second in the ACC, a half-game behind Duke (5-2, 17-4).
It was difficult to say which was more impressive Sunday night, the Cavaliers’ defense or their offense. UNC made only 20 of 56 shots (35.7 percent) from the floor.
“Guys were really on the same page. We didn’t get split much. The ball didn’t get in the paint,” Bennett said.
“There weren’t a lot of easy baskets. Most of them were contested, and when that’s happening, you can feel good about your defense, and I thought that was important for us tonight.”
At the other end, UVa shot 51.9 percent. Each of Bennett’s starters made at least half of his field-goal attempts.
“We got a little stagnant at the end of our game against Virginia Tech, and we really went to work, because we knew [UNC would] extend defensively and pressure us,” Bennett said.
“We needed to make some outside shots, needed to bounce it a little bit and cut real hard, making the extra pass. All those things happened, and this was probably the best we’ve moved the ball and shared the ball, and we cut with purpose, and that makes a difference.”
Zeglinski said: “I thought we showed a lot more poise against pressure. We spaced out nicely. We saw the trap coming, and people presented themselves nicely to relieve some pressure, and I thought our shot selection later in the game was good, and our defense was sound.”
Funny that Zeglinski would bring up shot selection. That was an issue Thursday night in Charlottesville, where junior guard Jeff Jones, with the Cavaliers up 10 late in the second half, attempted a 3-pointer about five seconds into a new shot clock.
The shot missed, leaving the Hokies more time to rally.
Against UNC, with the score 65-50, the ball came to Zeglinski, who was open in the left corner. He didn’t hesitate, even though the ‘Hoos weren’t deep into the shot clock, and he didn’t miss.
“I told Sammy he’s lucky he made that 3, because we’ve been there before, haven’t we?” Bennett said with a smile.
Zeglinski said: “I didn’t want to be passive. I know it was kind of a questionable shot, but I thought I had a really good look, and I didn’t want to be passive. I maybe could have worked some clock, but it went in. I shot it with confidence.
“I just want to keep my confidence up. I’m a shooter, and my team needs me to make shots.”
Virginia’s next two games are at JPJ. N.C. State visits Wednesday night, and then the ‘Hoos host Wake Forest on Saturday afternoon. With another win, UVa would exceed its 2008-09 victory total in ACC play.
“The kids have heart,” Bennett said, “and I’ve said before. I credit the previous staff for instilling toughness in them, because they certainly showed some toughness [Sunday night].”