By Jeff White
GREENSBORO, N.C. — “Looks like Virginia left their toughness at the hotel.”
The TV crew that worked the March 3 men’s basketball game at Boston College’s Conte Forum made that observation during the broadcast, and, however much it might have hurt the Cavaliers’ pride, it aptly summed up their halfhearted effort that night.
The Eagles flexed their muscles in a 68-55 victory that wasn’t that close, and Tony Bennett and his coaching staff made sure Virginia’s players heard the announcer’s remark — more than once — as they prepared for the ACC tournament.
“We used that as motivation,” junior guard Jeff Jones said. “We’re better than that. We’re tough. We could bang down low. We could match their physicality. So we came out here with a chip on our shoulder and said, ‘We’re going to fight, and we’re going to fight hard.'”
And battle they did Thursday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Wahoos never led in their regular-season loss at Boston College. In the opening game of the 57th annual ACC tournament, the ninth-seeded ‘Hoos led for the final 24 minutes and 6 seconds and toppled No. 8 seed BC 68-62.
“We all just came in with a mindset to be aggressive and not to back down,” sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “Last time we played them, I think they were mentally tougher than us, and we kind of took that personal, and we wanted to come in and be more physical and not yield to their big bodies inside.”
The Cavaliers struggled to contain 6-5, 228-pound guard Rakim Sanders — “He’s a beast down there,” said Jones — but they held BC’s leading scorer, forward Joe Trapani, without a field goal.
The 6-8 junior was 0 for 7 from the floor and scored a season-low 2 points.
“I thought we adjusted well from the first time we played Boston College, and our guys really battled,” Bennett said after his first ACC tourney game as Virginia’s coach.
UVa (15-15) will meet top-seeded Duke (26-5) in the noon quarterfinal Friday. The Blue Devils, like the Eagles, handled the ‘Hoos during the regular season, winning 67-49 at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We just gotta play poised and play together and play hard-nosed defense like we played today,” junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan said of the rematch with Duke.
“We lost pretty handily to Boston College the first time [too]. As long as we rally together and stay unified and just play for one another, we’ll be fine.”
The ‘Hoos entered the ACC tournament on a nine-game losing streak. No other team in the conference closed the regular season with more than three straight losses. Throw in the fact that, in a span of three days, UVa had lost leading scorer Sylven Landesberg (academics) and reserve guard Calvin Baker (personal reasons), and there was little reason to believe Bennett’s team would make a stand in Greensboro.
Yet the Cavaliers exuded confidence in their practices ahead of the ACC tourney. They were loose and upbeat as they prepared for BC, and that carried over to Thursday’s game.
“We’re just really playing for one another,” Farrakhan said. “It’s obviously a tough loss without Sylven here in the lineup, but we’re just trying to step up and do the best we can and play as a team.”
It showed Thursday. Virginia scored the first five points. The Eagles (15-16) pushed back, but this time the ‘Hoos didn’t retreat. After falling behind 23-17, UVa ran off seven straight points, the last three coming on a Zeglinski bomb from the left wing.
BC scored to regain the lead, but Jones answered at the 4:06 mark with a long 3-pointer from the left wing. That made it 27-25, Virginia, and the Eagles had to play catch-up the rest of the way.
UVa didn’t make it easy for them. The ‘Hoos committed only 5 turnovers, their fewest in a game since Dec. 31, 2003.
“We’ve had struggles, we’ve had some setbacks, but leading up to this game, we’ve had three really spirited practices,” Bennett said. “They’ve come together and they’ve worked hard. There’s been a good attitude. And you have to do that when your tank isn’t full, and I was really proud of the way they handled it. I’m happy for all these guys.”
The victory was the first for the ‘Hoos in the ACC tournament since March 9, 2006, when they beat Virginia Tech in a first-round game.
“It was a huge win,” senior center Jerome Meyinsse said with a huge smile in UVa’s locker room. “It was actually my first ACC tournament win, so I’m glad to have the opportunity to come back the next day.”
Meyinsse’s late-career surge has become of the more compelling stories in ACC hoops this season. He scored 12 points Thurday, his fifth straight game in double figures. This from a player who scored more than 9 points only twice in Virginia’s first 25 games.
“My confidence has grown over the course of the season,” Meyinsse said, “so I feel confident about the shots that I’m taking, and they’re going in.”
The crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum included his parents, Patricia and Joseph Meyinsse of Baton Rouge, La., and they watched proudly as their son was honored in a pregame presentation.
Meyinsse, who has a double major (economics and math), received the Skip Prosser Award, which goes annually to the ACC’s top student-athlete in men’s basketball.
“It was a surprise to me, and it was very nice,” Meyinsse said. “My parents were here to see it, so that was great, because they’ve helped me along this road, they’ve taught me how to carry myself. Just to have them see it as well really meant a lot.”
Junior forward Will Sherrill played six minutes and sophomore center Assane Sene four. Essentially, though, Bennett went with six players against BC: guards Zeglinski, Farrakhan, Jones and Jontel Evans and big men Meyinsse and Mike Scott.
All distinguished themselves. Evans didn’t score, but the 5-11 freshman played the tenacious defense that has become his trademark. Each of the other five scored in double figures, only the third time this season Virginia has had such balance.
Zeglinski showed that his awakening in the regular-season finale was no aberration. He spent the final month of the regular season mired in an awful shooting slump before burying four 3-pointers in a 74-68 loss to Maryland last weekend at JPJ.
He rang up 16 points in the first half against BC, with 12 coming on shots from beyond the arc. Zeglinski finished with a season-high 21 points and also contributed 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 35 minutes.
“I felt good out there,” Zeglinski said. “My shot felt good, and I didn’t want to settle for any shots. I wanted to take the ball to the basket as well and try to get the ball in the paint and make the extra pass for shooters.”
Bennett said: “Sammy was real complete today.”
So were Farrakhan and Jones. Farrakhan had 4 assists, 1 steal and no turnovers, and his three-point play with 1:19 left pushed UVa’s lead to 61-52.
“I could see that Boston College was getting a little bit of momentum,” Farrakhan said. “I saw Jeff coming off a screen, and the lane was kind of open. So I just made an aggressive play to the basket.”
Jones (14 points) hit five three throws in the final 54 seconds to keep BC at bay.
“I thought Sammy and Jeff and Mu had a nice feel as far as their shot selection, when to be aggressive,” Bennett said.
Several times in the final minute, Jones raised his arms, exhorting the UVa supporters at one end of the arena. They responded with cheers.
“I just wanted to tell the crowd and the fans that we’re here, man,” Jones said. “We’re still fighting. Regardless of all the adversity we’ve gone through, we’re still fighting. We love being the underdogs. Nobody believed in us today, and nobody’ll probably believe in us tomorrow.”
Jones’ third 3-pointer was nearly as memorable as his second, which came after he caught a pass from Zeglinski and barely beat the shot clock late in the first half.
BC had pulled to 45-38 when Jones launched a shot from the deep left corner. It bounced off the rim, high into the air and then dropped through the net to make it a 10-point game with 13:03 left.
“I thought I got fouled,” Jones said. “Actually, when the ball was going up, I was looking at the ref. I didn’t even look at the play, and then I saw it went in. So I said, ‘Hey, I’ll take it, if that’s how the game is going.’ I think it was just meant to be.”
The late-season struggles of Scott have been well-chronicled, but he delivered when his team needed him Thursday. The 6-8, 239-pound junior played 36 minutes, the most of any ‘Hoo, and totaled 11 points and 13 boards.
That matched his ACC high for rebounds. Scott didn’t start Thursday — Bennett went with Sherrill, who’d played well against Maryland — but he never pouted about his demotion.
“I just wanted to be aggressive in anything I did,” Scott said.
A Meyinsse free throw with 11:57 left gave Virginia an 11-point lead, but BC answered with eight straight points. Back-to-back baskets by Scott allowed the ‘Hoos to exhale.
More important than Scott’s offense, perhaps, was his effort at the other end of the court. No. 32 is not known as a great defensive player, but with Sanders overpowering the Cavs around the basket, Bennett turned to Scott with about 8:30 left.
“He really worked defensively,” Bennett said.
Sanders finished with a game-high 22 points, but only three came in the final nine minutes.
“He’s quick, strong, but I just wasn’t allowing him to get comfortable,” Scott said. “I tried to lock in and just tried to make him uncomfortable.”
Scott succeeded, and the Cavaliers bounded off the court winners for the first time since Feb. 3, when they beat N.C. State at JPJ.
“It’s been awhile since we got one,” Bennett said, “but certainly it’s a nice time to get it.”