By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG — Under cover of darkness, a chartered bus slipped into town Friday night and stopped in front of Cassell Coliseum. Out came members of the UVa’s men’s basketball team, who headed into Virginia Tech’s arena for a quick shootaround.
Except for the Cavaliers, the gym was empty. Except for the sounds of bouncing balls and players’ chatter, it was quiet.
The scene will be different Saturday night. At 8 o’clock, Tech (6-3, 19-4) hosts UVa (5-3, 14-7) in the second and final regular-season game between these ACC rivals. Cassell will be packed and the noise deafening.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Virginia sophomore Sammy Zeglinski said Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena. “Obviously there’s a lot of tension because we’re coming in as the rival team. It’s going to be a loud atmosphere, so we’re going to have to be ready to play. We’re going to have to show a lot of competitiveness, a lot of toughness, a lot of poise.”
Until Friday night, Tony Bennett had never been closer to Blacksburg than Roanoke. The Wahoos’ first-year coach spent the previous six seasons at Washington State and worked at Wisconsin before that.
Inside Cassell, Bennett pointed out to his players the large photos of former Tech greats Dell Curry and Allan Bristow displayed near the scoreboard at one end. When Bennett played for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, his teammates included Curry, and his coach was Bristow.
Assistant coach Ron Sanchez, who followed Bennett from Washington State to UVa, was also getting his first look at Cassell Coliseum. Except for freshmen Tristan Spurlock and Jontel Evans, however, all of Virginia’s players have experienced at least one game in Blacksburg.
“They can tell me more than I can tell them” about the atmosphere, Bennett said.
A season ago at Cassell, reserve guard Mustapha Farrakhan hit four treys and three free throws in the final 4:45 as UVa slashed Tech’s 15-point lead to two. But the Hokies held on for a 78-75 victory, and they took another close one last month in Charlottesville, rallying for a 76-71 overtime win.
With three minutes left in the second half at JPJ, Virginia led by 10 and appeared to have matters under control. The Hokies refused to surrender, however, and the ‘Hoos imploded. In what seemed a flash, Tech ran off 13 straight points, and UVa needed an improbable trey by Zeglinski in the final seconds to avoid losing in regulation.
Tech “made some plays, and then some of our decisions were bad,” Bennett said Friday. “But hopefully we’ve learned from it, knowing it’ll be, obviously, not as friendly and encouraging a setting [for the rematch]. But those are the things we mean when we talk about trying to really play a complete game and eliminate those things that will get you beat. That was a case study, because there was enough good stuff there to win it. We needed probably 30 more seconds of good basketball, and it might have been enough, but it wasn’t.”
On the list of games UVa would like to have back this season, that ranks No. 1.
“You have a lead on your home court with three minutes left, a double-digit lead, and let it slip away, it’s going to haunt you for a couple of weeks,” Zeglinski said.
Farrakhan said: “We felt like we were in control most of the game, so to let up like that towards the end was really frustrating. But we learned from it.”
Indeed, Virginia rebounded from that gut-wrenching loss to hammer North Carolina in Chapel Hill, then beat N.C. State in Charlottesville. But the Cavaliers lost another overtime game last weekend, falling at home to Wake Forest.
“We missed some shots, but we didn’t have as many breakdowns [as against the Hokies],” Bennett said. “That’s the scary thing about this league: You can play well and still be beat. You gotta keep focusing on quality and hopefully you’ll be there standing at the end.”
If the ‘Hoos don’t win Saturday night, it won’t be because they’re tired. They haven’t played in a week. They were scheduled to meet Maryland in College Park on Wednesday night, but the game was postponed because of the snowstorms that have paralyzed the D.C.
“We got an extra day or two of prep,” Bennett said. “But again, at this stage, it’s not about tricking someone or inventing too many new things. It’s about still trying to improve and fine-tuning some things, working on little position things that maybe get sloppy when there are so many games. Use it now, because all of the sudden, games will be upon us.”
The makeup game with Maryland is Monday night, and the Cavaliers will fly to Baltimore after packing up at Cassell on Saturday night.
From College Park, the ‘Hoos will bus back to Charlottesville, where they host Florida State on Wednesday. Then comes a visit to Clemson next weekend.
For now, of course, UVa is concerned with only one opponent: Virginia Tech. Among the Hokies who hurt Virginia at JPJ were forward J.T. Thompson and guards Dorenzo Hudson and Malcolm Delaney, all juniors.
Tech’s ability to exploit UVa in transition at the end of each half particularly bothered Bennett. If Virginia doesn’t get back on defense Saturday night, the Hokies’ chances of sweeping the regular-season loss will improve dramatically.
“I think they had 22 points in transition [at JPJ], and that’s how they’re most effective, running out in transition,” Farrakhan said. “We just want to make them work in the halfcourt. When we’re set on defense, we feel like we have a better chance of winning.
“You want to just try to make it tough for them, by playing sound defense. We know it’s a game of runs, but we just gotta stay poised and stay together.”
The ‘Hoos don’t usually visit the opposing arena twice before a game, but they’ll have another shootaround at Cassell on Saturday afternoon. Bennett said early in the week, though, that the pre-game routine has little bearing on how things go under the bright lights.
“It really is about, are your guys ready, are you playing the game the right way?” Bennett said. “I wish I could tell you it was the chicken tenders in the pregame meal that made the difference, but I don’t think so. I think it comes down to how you prepare and if you’re ready to go when the ball’s tipped up.”
UVa will be ready, Zeglinski said.
“We owe them one, definitely. They stole one from us here, so we gotta go and do the same thing to them.”