By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a perfect world — at least from UVa’s perspective — John Paul Jones Arena would be full Saturday afternoon, packed with orange-clad fans bent on creating a challenging atmosphere for Wake Forest.
Alas, Mother Nature has ensured that won’t happen. But the Cavaliers will appreciate whatever home-court advantage the hardy fans who make it to JPJ provide, because this is a game of great significance for Tony Bennett’s team.
A victory over Wake (5-3, 15-5) would lift UVa (5-2, 14-6) into a tie for first in the ACC with Duke (6-2, 18-4), if only for a couple of hours. Duke meets Boston College at 2 p.m. in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
A win over the Demon Deacons, who got to town Thursday night, would do more than that. It would increase the likelihood that UVa will be playing after the ACC tournament.
“We definitely want to be able to play in the postseason,” sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg said after practice Thursday night — preferably in the NCAA tournament.
“We know every game matters right now,” Landesberg said. “We lost some games we should have won, and then we got a lot of good wins, so every game is very important to us.”
Of the Wahoos’ six defeats, only two were not close. On Nov. 16, South Florida routed UVa 66-49 in Tampa. On Jan. 23, Wake whipped Virginia 69-57 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
That game was much more one-sided than the score suggests. Wake led by 24 points with eight minutes to play. Senior point guard Ishmael Smith had 21 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocked shots for the Deacs.
“They took it to us down there,” Bennett said. “They’re a load inside with quickness on the outside.
“We’ll just have to do a lot better job in almost every area. We were awfully cold against them. They defended us well. They kind of hit us in the mouth. We’ll go to work and hopefully come with a better performance.”
At Lawrence Joel Coliseum, UVa’s best player, Landesberg, spent the final 12:28 of the first half on the bench after picking up his second foul. Virginia’s second-leading scorer, 6-8 junior Mike Scott, joined Landesberg for the final 7:53 after being called for his second personal.
Bennett didn’t want either player to collect a third personal before halftime and gambled that the ‘Hoos could remain competitive without Landesberg and Scott. It didn’t happen. Wake scored the final 15 points of the half.
Scott said he’s looking forward to the rematch.
“Most definitely,” he said Wednesday night after totaling 15 points and 10 rebounds in UVa’s 59-47 win over visiting N.C. State.
“Mentally, I don’t think I was in the game. As a team, I don’t think we were in the game mentally. We just didn’t play good defense. The second time around, we’ve just got to come out and execute on defense and offense.”
Wake’s center, 7-footer Chas McFarland, averages 7.4 points and shoots 42.2 percent from the floor. Against UVa, he had 16 points and made 7 of 9 field-goal attempts.
“I think we made some mistakes defensively in the post,” Virginia center Jerome Meyinsse said Wednesday night. “We let them execute their high-low too effectively, and we’ll look to do some things differently on that and hopefully have a better outcome.”
Bennett’s big men weren’t the only Cavaliers off their games in Winston-Salem. Only once in Sammy Zeglinski’s past 15 games has the sophomore guard not hit at least two 3-pointers. That was at Wake, where he was 0 for 5 from the floor (0 for 3 from beyond the arc) and 1 for 3 from the line.
“I struggled that game, just never got in the flow,” Zeglinski said. “I’m excited for this game. They’re coming here, and we’re going to have the crowd behind us.”
He made those comments Wednesday night, before the arrival of the latest snowstorm to hammer Central Virginia. The crowd now figures to be well below capacity.
Still, even if surrounded by thousands of empty seats Saturday, the ‘Hoos won’t lack motivation against the Deacs.
“We owe them one,” Zeglinski said.