Dec. 21, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The grim expressions that UVa players and coaches wore after the game told the story. As frustrated as the Cavaliers were, however, they would have felt worse — immeasurably worse — had they not won Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena.

Virginia was fortunate to do so. It took an improbable tip-in from center Assane Sene, the least-skilled offensive player on second-year coach Tony Bennett’s roster, for UVa to slip past Norfolk State 50-49 before an anxious crowd of 7,856. The victory was the Wahoos’ fifth in a row and raised their record to 8-3.

“Certainly I’m thankful for the win, but we didn’t deserve to get that win the way we played,” Bennett said. “We struggled the whole game.”

For the second straight game, Virginia played without 6-8, 242-pound Mike Scott, its leading scorer and rebounder. It was the Cavaliers’ fourth straight game without another frontcourt starter, 6-9, 226-pound Will Sherrill, a calming presence on the court.

Scott is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle; Sherrill, from a fractured fibula. Each is a team captain, along with fellow senior Mustapha Farrakhan.

“I understand how close we’re playing this thing,” Bennett said. “Our margin of error [is extremely thin]. We say that all the time, but it’s true, and anybody who doubts that, watch that game. And if you’re struggling a little bit offensively, then you gotta be close to flawless or really good in those other areas.”

The ‘Hoos were far from flawless Monday night. Norfolk State (1-8) led by five points with 6:35 left and came agonizingly close to collecting the biggest win in its program’s history.

“It came down to a bounce of the basketball,” Spartans coach Anthony Evans said.

With 23.8 seconds left, guard Rob Hampton made two free throws to put NSU up 49-48. Junior guard Sammy Zeglinski, perhaps UVa’s most-clutch shooter, missed a 3-point attempt at the other end, but teammate KT Harrell grabbed the rebound and was fouled while putting up a jump shot.

With 5.7 seconds left and the tension mounting, Harrell’s first free throw rolled around the rim and off. His second was “on the rim for a good 30 seconds, I thought,” Zeglinski later said, but this one came off too.

That’s when Sene made a play that no one in JPJ, except the 7-0 junior himself, would have predicted. Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn, a 6-10, 240-pound junior, mistimed his jump for the rebound, and Sene leaped and tipped the ball back into the basket with 4.8 seconds remaining. After NSU missed a desperation 3-point attempt at the buzzer, the ‘Hoos finally could exhale.

“The guy that was boxing me out, Kyle, he was just saying, ‘Man, [Harrell is] going to miss it. He’s a freshman,’ ” Sene said. “And I was like, ‘Well, if he miss it, I will get an offensive rebound or I’m going to tip it in.’ That’s what I told him. Five seconds left, you gotta give everything you got.”

Sene had missed his first four shots from the floor and his only attempt from the line Monday night. For the season, the Senegal native has made only 6 of 22 shots from the floor. Three of those field goals, however, have been memorable. Sene made two crucial layups Dec. 5 to help UVa hold on for a 57-54 win over Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum.

Against the Spartans, Sene contributed 12 rebounds and 3 blocked shots, both game highs.

“He’s very active,” Zeglinski said, “and he plays with high energy, and those are the kind of plays that we need him to make, just the hustle plays, and he came through.”

The game-winner was the first of Sene’s basketball career, but his mood afterward was muted.

“That’s not exactly [the way] we wanted to win,” Sene said. “I think we could do better than this. I don’t think anybody in this locker room is happy about it. I think they’re all upset about it, because that’s not how we play.”

Of the Cavaliers who took more than one shot, only Farrakhan made at least half of his attempts. The 6-4 left-hander was 7 for 14 from the floor and finished with a game-high 18 points. He, too, was glum during the postgame interviews.

“Just feeling kind of down after the win, because I know we’re a better team than what we’re displaying,” Farrakhan said. “It’s just sometimes disappointing to come out there and not play to our potential.”

This is a team with only one accomplished low-post scorer — Scott (16.3 ppg). His absence wasn’t felt as much Friday night in Virginia’s 63-48 win over undersized Oregon, but Scott was sorely missed against Norfolk State.

“We’re inexperienced, and at times we show our limitations,” Bennett said. “When I say limited, with our personnel the way it is right now, offensively there’s only a few things we can do. I wish I could come up with something, but when you don’t have an inside attack, you’re trying to figure out ways to generate good shots or scoring opportunites, and that’s where it gets a little challenging.”

In its final game before Christmas, UVa hosts Seattle (4-10) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Then comes a Dec. 30 date at JPJ against Iowa State, a non-conference game in which Scott and Sherrill hope to play.

Asked what was going through his mind in the final seconds of Monday night’s game, Bennett said, “Pretty much what was going through my mind from start to finish. We were thoroughly outplayed, and Norfolk State, their kids played with heart and scrap. Their coach prepared them.”

Farrakhan was the only player to score in double figures for UVa. His teammates were a combined 12 for 40 from the floor.

“We got a lot of good looks,” said Zeglinski, who missed 7 of 9 field-goal attempts. “We just weren’t able to make shots tonight. I thought our defense did a good job of keeping us in the game, and we were able to make just enough plays to get the win.”

The Spartans shot 30.4 percent from the floor. But they consistently beat the ‘Hoos to loose balls and dominated on the boards in the second half. Bennett wasn’t ready to attribute the Spartans’ dismal offensive showing to stellar defense on his team’s part.

“They missed some shots,” Bennett said. “Certain teams aren’t going to miss those shots.”

When the press conference ended, a somber Bennett headed back to the locker room. A long night awaited him.

“I hope it’s one of those things where I look at the tape and I say, I think I overreacted after the game, and it wasn’t as bad on tape, the great equalizer,” Bennett said. “But I’ve got a feeling I’m going to watch tape and probably be more frustrated.”

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