By Jeff White (email@example.com)
BLACKSBURG — Turn on the videotape of the first two games on this long, long road trip, and it’s hard to recognize the guys with VIRGINIA on the front of their jerseys.
The young team that stumbled through embarrassing losses to Stanford (81-60) and Washington (106-63) is growing up.
“We’ve gained some ground over the last six games in some tough settings,” second-year coach Tony Bennett said Sunday night at Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum.
The Hokies will attest to that, however much they might not want to. In the ACC opener for both teams, UVa never trailed Sunday night in a 57-54 victory over a team that before the season was projected to make the NCAA tournament.
A stunned crowd of 9,847 saw the Cavaliers win in Blacksburg for the first time since Feb. 11, 2006. That made the victory especially sweet for Virginia’s upperclassmen, most notably redshirt junior Sammy Zeglinski and seniors Mike Scott and Mustapha Farrakhan (and the injured Will Sherrill).
UVa’s freshmen, who make up half the roster, are 1-0 in the Hokies’ gym.
“It took us four years to win here, and they just come in and win their first ACC game on the road against our rivals,” Zeglinski said, shaking his head and smiling. “I’m kind of jealous of that, but it’s great.”
UVa led by 12 at halftime, but the win didn’t come easily. After taking a 47-38 lead with 10:26 left on a 3-pointer by one of those first-year players, Joe Harris, Virginia didn’t score again 7-foot junior Assane Sene — Assane Sene! — made a layup at the 3:47 mark.
That pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 51-46. Another Sene layup, off a deft pass from Farrakhan, made it 53-49 with 1:17 left. Four straight free throws — two by Scott and then two by Farrakhan — seemed to seal the victory, but the ‘Hoos had to sweat out the final seconds.
After senior guard Malcolm Delaney’s NBA-length 3-pointer pulled Tech to 57-54, Harris went to the line for a one-and-one. He missed the front end, but Scott grabbed the rebound and was fouled.
Scott missed his front end with 7.8 seconds left, giving the Hokies a chance to force overtime. But Harris got a hand on guard Dorenzo Hudson’s 3-point attempt from the right wing, and time ran out.
“We were leaking oil down the stretch but had enough to come up with a big stop and make some big plays, which you need to do in a game like this,” Bennett said. “They were bound to make a run, and they did.”
The victory was the third in the past four games for the Wahoos (5-3), who haven’t played at John Paul Jones Arena since Nov. 15. It came six nights after UVa rallied to beat 15th-ranked and previously undefeated Minnesota 87-79 in Minneapolis.
The back-to-back road wins for the ‘Hoos are their first since the 2006-07 season.
“With our team, I just want them to keep striving for good basketball,” Bennett said. “I always tell them, ‘Just keep getting better.’ That’s kind of our battle cry, and I think they have improved. Had a good second half against Minnesota, had a real good first half here. Second half we [struggled at times], but certainly to get the victory is huge.”
Bennett hoped the Minnesota game would not be an aberration, but he wasn’t sure what to expect Sunday night. His players didn’t disappoint him. The Cavaliers’ defensive intensity was palpable for most of Sunday night’s game.
“I challenged our guys before the game,” Bennett recalled afterward. “I said, ‘This is your sixth game in a row away from home. Show me that you’ve learned. We’ve had some painful experiences, had some good ones, and now you’re in a tough setting against a rival with veteran players that are experienced that’s going to come out hungry because of their last game.’ ”
The Hokies, picked in the preseason to finish second in the ACC behind defending NCAA champion Duke, were coming off a close loss to Purdue at Cassell Coliseum. Still, not until the second half did Tech (4-4) look particularly interested Sunday night.
UVa shot 55.6 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes and led 36-24 at the break.
“We didn’t have a sense of urgency in the first half,” Hokies coach Seth Greenberg said.
This is a series that UVa leads 80-52, but Tech came in having won two straight and five of the past six meetings.
In each of Virginia’s 2009-10 losses to Tech, poor transition defense doomed Bennett’s team. If the Hokies were able to run at will Sunday night, Bennett told his players, the outcome would be same. The Cavaliers responded with a gritty effort. All-ACC guard Malcolm Delaney scored a game-high 26 points, but the Tech senior had to earn them.
“We were maybe an A-minus in this game,” Bennett said. “I think we can improve, but we didn’t let them run a lot. And then guys made big plays.”
UVa’s list of heroes starts with Scott. He totaled 21 points and 13 rebounds — his fourth consecutive double-double — and added 2 assists and one of the Cavaliers’ season-high 6 blocked shots.
Farrakhan, who scored a career-best 23 points against Minnesota, contributed 9 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, 2 steals and no turnovers in 36 minutes.
“That’s unselfishness,” Bennett said. “That’s letting the game come, especially after he had a monster game against Minnesota shooting the ball. What he showed was a great amount of poise and composure, and I was so happy for him. I think he stepped up and did the job. The older guys were leading and talking a little more, and that was great.”
Harris, despite being blanketed by one of the ACC’s premier defenders, Terrell Bell, had 10 points, and classmate K.T. Harrell came off the bench to score 7.
With Sherrill, a 6-9 forward, sidelined by a fractured right fibula, freshman big men Akil Mitchell and Will Regan were pressed into service. Neither flinched.
And then there was Zeglinski, who had missed UVa’s first seven games while recovering from knee surgery. Virginia’s medical staff told Bennett that Zeglinski should play no more than 20 minutes against Tech. He played 15, chipping in 3 assists and 1 steal and no turnovers.
“He steadied us, and in a good setting away from home, that’s a great place to get your sea legs, I guess,” Bennett said.
Zeglinski had surgery Oct. 19 to repair cartilage damage in his left knee. At the time, the Dec. 17 game against Oregon at JPJ seemed the likely date for Zeglinski’s 2010-11 debut, but he had another target.
“From Day One, Virginia Tech was my goal,” Zeglinski said Sunday night, “and everybody kind of just wrote it off. They were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever.’ I was real motivated from Day One of the rehab.”
In the final minutes Sunday night, Bennett had a decision to make: What to do with Sene? The Senegal native known to his teammates and coaches as “Zu” is a capable defender and rebounder, but Sene often has been a liability at the offensive end, in part because of his struggles to catch the ball cleanly.
Sene made only 3 of 9 shots from the floor in Virginia’s first six games. Yet Bennett stuck with him Sunday night — mainly for defensive purposes — and Sene rewarded him with the two biggest baskets of his college career.
“I was really excited,” Sene said, “because my teammates had a lot of confidence in me, so they gave me the ball. So I was like, ‘I got to get ready to catch it and finish.’ ”
Sophomore point guard Jontel Evans said: “A lot of people don’t think he can do it that. But I told Zu, ‘Catch the ball first and then make your move.’ Zu’s always ready to listen to us. He took that and he did it and he made two key baskets for us.”
Farrakhan said: “He’s been working so hard on catching a basketball after practice, and so I just had trust in him to give the ball at those times, and he came up big for us. I’m just really proud of him.”
The game’s pivotal sequence came after 6-8 junior Victor Davila’s jump hook pulled Tech to 53-51 with 19.4 seconds left. Greenberg called a timeout to set his team’s defense.
The job of inbounding the ball fell to Evans. At Hampton’s Bethel High, he had been a star tailback, but Evans never threw a pass. You might not have guessed that Sunday night. Scott, with Jeff Allen overplaying him, broke long, and Evans hit him with a perfect pass.
Scott caught the ball and then dribbled toward UVa’s basket. When he stopped, Allen wrapped up his former Hargrave Military Academy teammate and was called for an intentional foul. Scott made both free throws, and Virginia retained possession.
“That’s one of the options,” Bennett said of the long pass. “If they’re going to cheat and really make it hard to get it in, look long. I didn’t tell Jontel, ‘You gotta throw it,’ but if it’s there, it’s one of the press attacks that we do. He threw it, and it was a heck of a pass, heck of a catch, and that was big.”
The first of eight straight games at JPJ for Virginia comes Tuesday night against Radford.