By Jeff White
GREENSBORO, N.C. — UVa’s basketball team pulled out of town around 4:45 p.m. Friday, headed north to Charlottesville in a steady rain. The Wahoos’ run in the ACC tournament had ended about three hours earlier, and their season was over, but there were no tears on the bus.
The ‘Hoos came away from their two games at the Greensboro Coliseum with renewed optimism.
After losing their final nine regular-season games, the ninth-seeded Cavaliers surprised No. 8 seed Boston College 68-62 in the ACC tournament’s first round Thursday.
A second straight upset eluded UVa in Friday’s first quarterfinal, but not for lack of effort. Virginia and the nation’s fourth-ranked team were tied at halftime, and with six minutes left, the top-seeded Blue Devils’ lead was only two, 46-44.
In the end, though, Duke’s superior talent prevailed, as so often happens. The ‘Hoos went cold, all-ACC guard Jon Scheyer took over, and the Devils pulled away for a 57-46 victory.
“You’ve got to minimize your breakdowns against teams like that, or they cut your heart out,” Bennett said. “And that’s what they did to us down the stretch.”
Virginia played its final three games without leading scorer Sylven Landesberg, whom Bennett suspended last weekend for academic reasons. The Cavaliers, 10-18 in 2008-09, finished 15-16 in their first season under Bennett.
“It’s always hard when you play the last game,” he said, “but there’s something to build on, and that’s what it’s about.
“I think we had Duke nervous for a little while, but they showed why they’re a heck of a team, so well-coached and so poised when it got to that time. When they had to make the plays, they certainly made some.”
The 57 points were a season low for the Blue Devils (27-5), who shot only 38.2 percent from the floor. If that wasn’t the best defense UVa played all season, it was close, Bennett said.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Virginia had held BC to 41.7-percent accuracy.
The team’s performance in Greensboro “went a long way in ensuring that this will be a good program,” senior center Jerome Meyinsse said.
“It brought some respectability that maybe was lost in our losing streak. I think we have a good foundation, and it showed that in the future, when we keep playing defense like this, great things will happen.”
Junior guard Jeff Jones scored 29 points in his two games in Greensboro, reviving a college career that had seemed stalled.
“We got a little taste of success out there,” Jones said, “We got a little taste of it, but we want the whole thing. We want to be greedy out there.”
An inability to score plagued UVa for much of the season. The Cavaliers averaged an ACC-low 65.5 points and shot only 42.6 percent from the floor. Against Duke, the ‘Hoos shot 32.1 percent, and the 46 points were a season low.
“That will come with time,” Meyinsse said.
Of more concern to Bennett is his team’s defense, which, coincidentally or not, improved dramatically after the suspension of Landesberg, a sophomore swingman who is unlikely to return to UVa in 2010-11.
“It just shows what we have to do to be successful in this league,” sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “We have to come out and defend every night and put forth our best effort. We can’t have nights off, even when our offense isn’t great.
“Like in the beginning of the [Duke] game, we had no offense, really, and our defense just really kept us in and put us in a position to win. We just fell a little short. We needed to make some big shots. Mu made some big shots, but we just didn’t have enough down the stretch to really compete with them offensively.”
With 16 minutes remaining, the teams were tied 33-33. But Kyle Singler had a four-inch height advantage on whichever defender Bennett tried on him, and the junior forward started showing off the skills that made him a first-team all-ACC selection.
With 9:45 left, the Devils led 46-35, and the blowout that most observers had predicted appeared imminent. But Virginia responded with nine straight points. To call this a “run” wouldn’t be entirely accurate, because it took more than three minutes. Still, when junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan buried a trey with 6:21, it was suddenly a two-point game. The pro-UVa and anti-Duke factions in the Coliseum roared.
“It was right there,” Jones said. “That gave us hope. That gave us a lot of hope when he hit that shot there.”
Alas, hope faded. Virginia didn’t make another shot from the floor.
“We looked like we ran out of a little gas, maybe, in the last five minutes,” Bennett said.
The Cavs’ shots didn’t fall early, either. Virginia was scoreless until a Farrakhan jumper made it 5-2 at the 15:16 mark. But Bennett can live with poor shooting if his players are battling at the other end. That was the case against Duke.
“I think our guys got it right today,” Bennett said. “As I told you before, they usually wait till their offense is rolling to energize their defense. Not today. They had their defense revved up, ready to go while their offense was laboring.”
Zeglnski, who scored a season-high 21 points against BC, went 0 for 9 versus Duke and didn’t get to the line. In a sequence that summed up his afternoon, he stripped the ball from Scheyer — Zeglinski’s fourth steal of the game — and dribbled in for a layup.
The 6-5 Scheyer challenged the shot, and it missed. But the 6-0 Zeglinski grabbed the rebound — his fifth of the game — and went back up with his left hand. This attempt missed too.
“I don’t know,” Zeglinski said when asked about his offensive woes against Duke. “All I know is that I left everything on the court.”
He wasn’t the only one in blue to do so Friday. Junior forward Mike Scott posted a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds). The 6-4 Farrakhan tied his career high with 5 rebounds. Jones scored a team-high 15 points and had 2 steals. Meyinsse matched his career high with 3 blocked shots.
Against a frontcourt that includes 7-1 Brian Zoubek and the Plumlee brothers — 6-10 Mason and 6-10 Miles — the 6-9 Meyinsse had little success with the ball down low. He made only 3 of 9 field-goal attempts, and his streak of games with at least 10 points ended at five.
But Meyinsse was proud, and understandably so, about the way he closed his college career.
“It’s been a great experience,” Meyinsse said during the postgame press conference at which he and Bennett represented UVa. “I had some ups and downs during my career, but I’m glad I was able to finish strong. I’m very thankful for the time I’ve had here.”
Later, in the locker room, Meyinsse looked ahead.
“I hope I’ve helped build the foundation,” he said. “I think it’s a great foundation that Coach Bennett brought with him [from Washington State]. I think the program’s moving in the right direction.
“You saw how we played defense at the beginning of the year and here late in the year. I think if we continue to do that as a program we’ll have a great future. We definitely had a tough stretch in there, but I think we’ve grown from that. I think everybody that’s returning has learned from that situation and grown from it, and it’ll only get better.”
Scott, a non-factor against Maryland in the regular-season finale, totaled 25 points and 24 rebounds in the ACC tournament.
“He responded to the challenge,” Bennett said.
So did his teammates. Which begs the question: What triggered UVa’s improbable late-season surge?
In the Cavaliers’ final game with Landesberg and reserve guard Calvin Baker, a team captain who left the team before the ACC tourney, they lost by 13 points at Boston College.
Three days later, with a depleted roster, the ‘Hoos nearly upset No. 22 Maryland, and their strong play continued in Greensboro.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything, to be honest,” junior forward Will Sherrill said Friday. “We lost some guys, so other guys knew they had to step up. And I think everybody on the team just put aside their personal issues. Maybe they weren’t happy with their playing time, their shots. Whatever they weren’t happy with, they just said, ‘It’s all about the team.’
“If we have that, we can play with anybody, like you saw today.”
Farrakhan said: “It feels like we’re headed toward the right direction with the rebuilding of this team.”