By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — By the time he walked into the press room at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday afternoon, Tony Bennett had regained his composure and put his suit jacket back on.
In the final minute of UVa’s fiercely contested game with ACC rival Maryland, however, Bennett had been incensed, and with good reason.
With 38.6 seconds left and the 22nd-ranked Terrapins up 66-65, official Jamie Luckie called Cavaliers center Jerome Meyinsse for blocking on a drive by Sean Mosley. To Bennett — as well as most in the admittedly biased crowd of 13,431 — it looked like a charge, and Virginia’s first-year coach took off his jacket and threw it down in frustration.
Luckie responded with another controversial call, this one a game-changer. He slapped Bennett with a technical foul, and by the time the Wahoos got the ball back, after four Maryland free throws, they trailed 70-65.
Led by their indomitable senior guard Greivis Vasquez, the Terps went 8 for 8 from the line in the last 38 seconds to hold off the short-handed ‘Hoos 74-68 in the regular-season finale for both teams.
“Heck of a time to get the first technical of my career, that’s for sure,” Bennett said.
“It was a mistake to take my jacket off and throw it down like that. I shouldn’t have. But it was the heat of the battle. I gotta see the call [on videotape], but there was certainly a lot of activity a couple plays before. There was a lot of emotion from both coaches, and it’s just the heat of the battle. But I feel bad.”
With 6.5 seconds left and the score 72-68, Bennett spent most of a timeout staring down Luckie across the court. After the final buzzer sounded, Bennett exchanged sharp words with the official.
“I was just frustrated,” said Bennett, who’s known for his even temper. “I wanted some clarification on the technical, but I guess when you take your jacket off and throw it …”
Maybe he deserved a T, Bennett said. He planned to watch the tape and judge for himself. “But I wish our kids would have had the chance to at least tie it or get the win,” he said, “and that didn’t happen.”
Maryland (13-3, 23-7) extended its winning streak to seven and clinched at least a share of the ACC regular-season title.
The loss was the ninth straight for the Cavaliers (5-11, 14-15), but the effort was easily their best in three weeks.
They were without their best player, sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg, and their second-leading scorer, junior forward Mike Scott, contributed only 2 points and 1 rebounds.
They trailed by 11 at halftime after giving up 17 second-chance points — Maryland grabbed 14 of the game’s first 15 rebounds — and the Cavs were still down 10 with 9:15 remaining.
Yet UVa never surrendered. The ‘Hoos battled like a team playing for a championship, not like one that will be seeded ninth at next week’s ACC tournament. (Virginia meets No. 8 seed Boston College at noon Thursday in a first-round game.)
“Everybody put their own personal stuff aside and said, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to help this team win,'” junior forward Will Sherrill said. “And that’s really gotta be the mindset every game, every practice, every minute that you’re on the floor.”
It was Senior Day for UVa, and Meyinsse, swingman Solomon Tat and guards Calvin Baker and Tom Jonke were honored before the game, along with manager Andrew Harrison.
That added another storyline to a rivalry game already notable for the absence of Landesberg. About an hour before tipoff Saturday, a press release was distributed at JPJ in which Bennett announced that Landesberg had been suspended “for failure to live up to his academic obligations.”
“There was a lot of emotion,” Bennett said later, “with Senior Day and the situation with Sylven, and you’re out there bleeding for those kids. You want to see something [good] happening, and they fought back. So I am so proud of them for that. It would have been even sweeter to get [the victory].
“They responded. At times it didn’t look good, but they came together and played some pretty good team ball when it was needed and gave themselves a chance.”
In his final appearance at JPJ, the 6-9 Meyinsse dominated the paint. He went 7 of 8 from the floor (and 3 for 4 from the line) and finished with a team-high 17 points.
In his past three games, Meyinsse has made 19 of 22 shots from the floor. That’s heady stuff for a guy who entered his senior season with 35 career field goals.
“We’ll miss him, no doubt,” Bennett said.
“He’s really evolved, and he’s a good story, because he’s a great kid who certainly represents the University well. He’s well-balanced and has waited for his chance, and probably thought it wasn’t even maybe going to come, and it’s come, and he’s really done well … He’s really taken some nice strides, and I couldn’t be happier for Jerome and his family, and I think he’s a kid who’s going to do very well in whatever he does.”
Meyinsse said: “I knew without Sylven tonight I had to be more aggressive on offense, and that’s what I tried to do.
“Over the course of the season I’ve gotten better, and in this last month it’s just clicked. I feel like I can score when I get the ball, and I just try to be more aggressive, and good things have happened.”
This was the Cavaliers’ second game without Landesberg in a week. In the first, with Landesberg out with a thigh injury, junior guard Jeff Jones failed to score in a 67-49 loss to Duke at JPJ. Against Maryland, Jones came off the bench to go 4 for 6 from beyond the arc and 4 for 4 from the line.
“I definitely wanted to make up for that Duke game,” Jones said.
The four treys were the most in an ACC game for Jones, who finished with 16 points. Another UVa guard, sophomore Sammy Zeglinski, broke out of a horrific slump, burying four 3-pointers. He added 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal.
Zeglinski wasn’t perfect, but “he kept knocking and he kept plugging,” Bennett said. “He’s been in a tough slump, as many of our guys have been shooting the ball, but it was nice to see him battle.”
Not since Feb. 3 had Zeglinski made more than one trey in a game. Virginia also got strong play from junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan, who had 8 points, 5 assists and 2 steals, and Sherrill, who came off the bench to score 9 points, an ACC high for the walk-on from New York City.
“We knew with Sylven out, everybody had to step up,” said Jones, a former Maryland recruit. “I think a lot of guys did today. We stepped it up defensively and offensively.”
A duel between Vasquez and Jones broke out in the second half. A Jones trey pulled UVa to 54-51, but Vasquez, a 6-6 senior, answered 13 seconds later with a 3-pointer.
Jones matched that 17 seconds later, pulling Virginia to 57-54, but Vasquez was just warming up. His fourth trey, with 4:24 to play, made it 62-56, and his fifth pushed the Terps’ lead to 65-59 with 3:32 left.
“They were big-time shots, and he’s a big-time player,” Zeglinski said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Vasquez, a frontrunner for ACC player of the year, totaled 23 points, 5 assists and 4 steals in 37 minutes. He took the two free throws after Bennett’s technical and, naturally, made both to give Maryland a 68-65 lead.
“What can you say about some of the shots that Greivis hit?” Bennett said, shaking his head. “He’s a winner, certainly.”
A combination of inspired defense and torrid shooting got the ‘Hoos back in the game. In the second half, UVa shot 65.2 percent from the floor, to only 37.5 percent for Maryland.
After freshman center Jordan Williams’ free throw gave Maryland a 66-61 lead with 2:51 left, Farrakhan converted a fast-break layup. The Terps turned the ball over, and then Farrakhan slipped a pass to Sherrill, who scored inside to make it 66-65.
Cheers rocked JPJ, and the din grew louder after Sherrill drew a charge from Vasquez at the 1:24 mark, a call that Terrapins coach Gary Williams protested vehemently.
Alas, with a chance to take its first lead of the game, UVa couldn’t capitalize. On the left wing, in front of the home bench, Farrakhan dragged his right foot and was called for traveling.
That set up the decisive sequence involving Bennett and Luckie. After the game, Bennett apologized to his players for the technical. He need not have.
“Coach is behind us,” Zeglinski said. “I didn’t have a problem with [the technical], because he’s going to go to war with us, and I really like to see that, because he always has our back.”
Meyinsse said: “He’s fought for us the whole year. He’s always been behind us through the good times and the bad. We respect that in our coach, and I think we have a great future in this program.”
Had you told him before the game that Bennett would get a T, Sherrill was asked, would he have been shocked?
“I would have been more shocked that the ref would call a technical in the last minute of a close game,” Sherrill said.