By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — No Mike Scott.
That disquieting news spread through John Paul Jones Arena as tipoff approached Friday night, forcing anxious fans to re-assess UVa’s chances against Oregon.
The Cavaliers already were missing one starter, senior forward Will Sherrill, and now they were without another team captain, too. Scott, an all-ACC candidate who leads the team in scoring (16.3 ppg) and rebounding (10.4 per game), had arthroscopic surgery Thursday to remove loose cartilage in his left ankle.
The injury, which UVa didn’t disclose publicly until minutes before the game, had kept Scott out of recent practices, so his teammates, unlike fans, weren’t shocked by his absence Friday night. But it made the Cavaliers’ challenge greater against an undersized Oregon team that, with the 6-8, 242-pound Scott in the lineup, they might have well dominated inside.
“I told the guys yesterday, I said, ‘It’s going to be hard. You’re going to go through some rough patches,’ ” second-year coach Tony Bennett recalled late Friday night. “I said, ‘We’re without Mike, we’re without Will. We haven’t played for a while.’ I said, ‘Embrace this challenge … Let’s take this challenge and know it’s going to be tough, but don’t yield.’ ”
After some rough moments early — Oregon scored 11 straight points after falling behind 4-0 — Bennett’s players made their coach proud. On a night when three freshmen played at least 26 minutes apiece, and sophomore Jontel Evans played 27, the Wahoos rallied to whip the Ducks 63-48 before an appreciative crowd of 9,708.
The victory was the fourth straight for UVa (7-3), which hosts Norfolk State on Monday night.
“I was just proud of our whole team, being able to step up without Mike, without Will,” junior guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “It was tough, but everybody stepped up.”
Neither Scott nor Sherrill is expected to return before Virginia’s Dec. 30 date with Iowa State, which means Bennett will have to continue being creative with his lineup. (At one point Friday night he had four freshmen and a sophomore on the court together.) But his players impressed him with their grit against Oregon.
“They battle,” Bennett said. “We’re not perfect by any means, we don’t look the best, but they scrapped … ‘Win or lose,’ I said, ‘show me quality out there. Show me heart, show me the things that have gotten you to where you’re at.'”
One of his freshmen, 6-4 guard K.T. Harrell, destroyed the Ducks (7-4) with his lethal midrange game, scoring a career-high 20 points. Another first-year player, 6-8 forward Akil Mitchell, came off the bench to grab a career-best 7 rebounds. Still another freshman, 6-6 Joe Harris, had a quiet game offensively (5 points) but pulled down 6 rebounds on a night when he had to play out of position at power forward at times.
“I think we all felt like, ‘OK, Mike’s out, we gotta do everything better. Now that he’s out, we gotta play defense better. Offensively, we gotta look for great shots,’ ” Harrell said. “I was just trying to be aggressive, and I found good shots and I took good shots.”
With Scott out, the Cavaliers’ most experienced players are Zeglinski and senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan. In his third game back from a knee injury, Zeglinski finally broke out offensively, hitting three treys and scoring 12 points. He also had 4 assists and 2 steals, with no turnovers, in 22 minutes.
“I asked him before the game, ‘How many minutes can you play?’ ” Bennett said, smiling. “He said, ‘Forty.’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll see about that.’ ”
Farrakhan, out of sorts early against Oregon’s full-court pressure, settled down and helped take apart a team whose best player is his former high school teammate Joevan Catron (16 points, 7 rebounds). Rest assured, Farrakhan will mention UVa’s win to his buddy when they’re back in the Chicago area next week.
“We both go home on the 23rd, so I’m going right to his house after that,” Farrakhan said with a smile.
The box score shows Farrakhan with 17 points, 1 assist, 1 steal and 1 blocked shot. That was no routine block. With UVa leading 35-31, Oregon’s Jeremy Jacob, a 6-8 forward, found himself alone for what appeared to be a wide-open layup.
Enter the 6-4 Farrakhan, who soared, seemingly from out of nowhere, to swat away Jacob’s shot.
“I like trying to go after shots at the rim,” Farrakhan said. “I just use my athleticism. I was trying to make an aggressive play, because I saw that the bottom of the rim was open.”
The ball ended up in Zeglinski’s hands, and he led a fast break that ended when he fed Farrakhan on the left wing for a 3-pointer that brought fans to their feet.
“I saw him out of the corner of my eye,” Zeglinski said. “I wanted to reward him after that great play he made, and I knew if he hit that, the crowd would really get into it and it would be a real turning point in the game.”
Dramatic 3-pointers have become a Zeglinski trademark, too, and he delivered two more Friday night. They were NBA-length treys, and each came with the shot clock winding down, the first with 8:42 left and the second at the 5:40 mark.
“Those are daggers,” Bennett said. “You work the shot clock and then at the last five seconds or at the buzzer, you bang a 3. I thought that just gave us the momentum and put a little more pressure on them.”
With 40.8 seconds left, Bennett called a timeout to allow the crowd to acknowledge Harrell’s contributions. Walk-on forward Thomas Rogers replaced Harrell, whom fans serenaded with chants of “K.T.! K.T.! K.T.!”
In each of his previous three games, Harrell had played 16 minutes. He played a career-high 35 against Oregon. He started because Scott was out, but Harrell’s stellar play kept him in the game.
Harrell made 8 of 12 shots from the floor. Only one of his attempts came from outside the 3-point arc.
“I always say he’s got a mean midrange game,” Bennett said. “He has an ability to take it to a spot, and he elevates pretty well, and he has very good touch, and you saw that on display, and he’s strong. He did a heck of a job.”
The ‘Hoos committed 11 turnovers, but only five came in the final 31 minutes.
“We haven’t been pressed quite like that, and I thought we were a little anxious,” Bennett said. “Some of them were silly turnovers, but on some we got a little sped up. I told them, ‘If you’ll just break their pressure and be a little more patient, I think their defense will break down.’ ”
And that’s exactly what happened. For the game, UVa shot 50 percent from the floor, even without its best offensive player.
Bennett said Scott’s ankle began hurting during a practice late last week. After taking a couple of days off, Scott tested his ankle in practice again and felt more pain.
“And so we got him an MRI, and apparently there’s a piece of cartilage that was right on a spot that needed to be flushed out,” Bennett said. “And then he underwent the scope [Thursday, and the surgeon] found a couple loose pieces in there, and I think it was very prudent and a wise decision to do it, because it would have been something that would have been recurring.
“His return time, it’s all about how quickly the swelling gets out and how functional he can be.”
Sherrill hasn’t played since fracturing his right fibula in the second half of UVa’s Nov. 29 win at Minnesota. The injury did not require surgery, and Sherrill’s rehabilitation is going well.
“He’s starting to walk, job and do things, and it’s all really based on [how much pain] he can endure and handle,” Bennett said. “It’s one of those deals where it was sore the other day, and it actually responded well. I don’t know if there’s a time frame. It’s whenever he can handle it.
“Walking and running and cutting is one thing, and then opening it up and playing full blast, that’s a different deal, and he’s not to that spot at all yet. It would be nice if we could get him and Mike back sooner than later, because we need ’em.”
Farrakhan said: “I can’t wait to get those guys back. We really miss their voice and their leadership, too, and we just wish the best for them.”
UVa’s pre-Christmas schedule includes two more games: Norfolk State on Monday and Seattle two nights later. The ‘Hoos will then be off until Dec. 30, when Iowa State visits JPJ.