By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — By foot or by vehicle, nearly 6,000 spectators made it to John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday, braving snowy streets to witness UVa’s basketball game with ACC rival Wake Forest.
The fans were treated to a thriller that had an unhappy ending for the home team.
For the second time in 10 days, the Wahoos scored in the final minute to force overtime at JPJ, only to lose in the extra period.
Virginia Tech beat Virginia 76-71 on Jan. 28. The Demon Deacons prevailed 64-61 before 5,988 hardy fans Saturday afternoon to sweep the teams’ regular-season series.
“I want to say thanks to the fans that came with the weather we had. That was unbelievable,” first-year coach Tony Bennett said. “That meant more to me and our team than you’ll ever know, and I’m beginning to understand more and more what Virginia fans are about, that they would come out in that weather and support us and cheer like they did.
“It was a home-court advantage because of them, so I say thank you to them and sorry we didn’t do our part.”
As he had when these teams met Jan. 23 in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wake point guard Ishael Smith bedeviled the Cavaliers (5-3, 14-7) on Saturday.
At Lawrence Joel Coliseum, Smith totaled 21 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in the Demon Deacons’ 69-57 victory. At JPJ, Smith had 15 points, 7 boards and 5 assists and, as usual, scored on a variety of floaters and runners.
Smith scored Wake’s final two points in regulation and last three in overtime Saturday.
“He is the straw that stirs the drink for us,” Deacons coach Dino Gaudio said. “We just try to put the ball in his hands at the end of the game, and most of the second half for that matter. He just made plays.”
Count the Cavaliers among Smith’s admirers.
“He’s just so fast, and he’s able to get pretty much anywhere he wants on the court,” UVa sophomore Sylven Landesberg said. “And when he gets there, he’s very unselfish. He’s willing to give the ball up to the open teammate on every play, and that’s what makes him so tough.”
For much of the game, Jontel Evans guarded Smith, and the 5-11 freshman from Hampton impressed Wake’s coach.
“I am going to tell you something — Jontel Evans is as good a defender as we have had on Ishmael Smith in a long time,” Gaudio said. “That kid can really guard.”
Evans said: “I tried to focus in and play the best defense I could, but he’s just a good player. He finds a way to get to the rack and get his teammates open.”
Another problem for Virginia was Wake’s dominance on the backboards. The taller Deacs had 18 second-chance points to only 7 for UVa, largely because they outrebounded Bennett’s team 46-34.
Wake’s frontcourt includes 7-0 Chas McFarland, 6-11 Tony Woods, 6-11 David Weaver and 6-9 Al-Farouq Aminu.
“One after another, they roll big guys out there, and it’s definitely a challenge,” said UVa’s starting center, 6-9 Jerome Meyinsse, “because they come in with fresh bodies and they just bang and bang. You just have to do your best to keep them off the boards and limit their paint touches and effectiveness.”
Landesberg, who led all scorers with 28 points, said, “Wake Forest is an elite team in the ACC. This was going to be a tough game no matter what. I think we came out, we competed, we gave it our all. We just didn’t get the result we wanted.”
Landesberg scored the final points of the second half, on a layup that Aminu goaltended with 14.5 seconds left, to pull UVa to 55-55.
In OT, the Deacons led 63-59 with a minute left, but Virginia rallied and had an opportunity to extend the game again. With 20.9 seconds left in the game — and 14 on the shot clock — UVa called its final timeout trailing 64-61.
The ball, to the surprise of no one in the building, ended up in the hands of Landesberg, but he had no path to the basket and settled for a contested jump shot that missed.
Teammate Will Sherrill grabbed the rebound with 11 seconds left, but the 6-9 junior mistakenly thought time was running out. Sherrill hurriedly dribbled to the left corner, where he launched an off-balance 3-point attempt that didn’t hit the rim. The Deacons came down with the airball and then ran out the clock.
“I wish we’d have gotten a cleaner look than that, but certainly we’ll learn from that,” Bennett said. “Not to take consolation in the loss, but we played better, and I told our guys, ‘Keep your heads up, and it’s about the quality.’ It was a better performance.”
Indeed, the Cavaliers played dramatically better than they had Jan. 23, when they trailed by 24 with eight minutes left.
Before the rematch, Bennett challenged his players. “I said, ‘Don’t you let them do what they did at their place,’ and I thought for the most part we didn’t. But the second half offensively was a struggle.”
That’s an understatement. Virginia, which made 13 of 27 field-goal attempts in the first half, was 9 for 38 from the floor in the final 25 minutes.
Nobody struggled more than Mike Scott. The 6-8, 239-pound junior was 5 for 5 from the floor in the first half. The rest of the way, he was 0 for 10 from the floor and 0 for 1 from the line.
With 7:42 left in the first half and Virginia leading 22-17, Scott picked up his second foul, and went to the bench. He’d been unstoppable to that point, but when Scott finally got back on the court, to start the second half, he didn’t look like the same player.
Did the Deacons (6-3, 16-5) do anything differently on defense?
“Nah,” Scott said. “I was just missing shots.”
Virginia, which led 34-29 at the break, had the ball first in the second half, and Bennett, hoping to get a third foul on Aminu, called a play for Scott.
It worked seemingly to perfection, as Scott drove down the lane toward an unguarded basket. But instead of laying the ball in, Scott tried a one-handed dunk that ricocheted off the rim and out of bounds.
“That would have been a nice one to have,” Bennett said.
He was referring to Scott’s shot but could have been talking about the game.
With a win, UVa would have finished the day second in the ACC, a half-game behind Duke. The loss leaves the ‘Hoos tied with Virginia Tech for fourth, with four of their next five games on the road.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Meyinsse said. “As hard as it is to win at home, it’s even harder on the road, when the crowd is against you. We have a big challenge ahead of us, and we have to do our best to come out on top.”
Landesberg and Scott were the only Wahoos to score in double figures. Starting guards Evans and Sammy Zeglinski were a combined 2 for 12 from the floor. Sherrill and junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan each contributed 7 points off the bench.
The Deacons didn’t take their first lead until the 14:36 mark of the second half, when guard C.J. Harris’s free throw made it 36-35.
Wake won despite making only 11 of 23 free throws. Smith, who came in shooting 48.4 percent on foul shots, was 1 for 4 from the line, and the Cavaliers might have erred by not putting him there more often.
UVa never took Smith out of his comfort zone Saturday. About the only thing that rattled the 6-0 senior was the announcement that came over the P.A. system with 13:19 left in the first half.
The University thanked fans for their efforts to get to JPJ by inviting them to move to better seats if they so desired.
“It kind of bugged me, kind of made me mad when the announcer said that everybody could come down, because that made the crowd even more raucous,” Smith said. “But it was a great atmosphere.”