By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If Georgia Tech was not the hottest men’s basketball team in the ACC heading into the weekend, the Yellow Jackets were at least on the short list, having whipped North Carolina by 20 points last Sunday and Wake Forest by 35 on Wednesday night.
UVa, meanwhile, had lost three games in a row. So guess what happened Saturday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers dominated, to the delight of the overwhelming majority of the 11,885 fans in attendance. The final score was 72-64, but that was deceiving. Georgia Tech had only 49 points (and trailed by 18) with 1:55 left. The Yellow Jackets never led.
“We played the way we want to play defensively, and we didn’t let them play that up-tempo style of play that they wanted to play,” freshman guard KT Harrell said. “We made them play how we wanted to play.”
The Wahoos (2-3, 11-8) were unhappy about surrendering 15 points in the final 1:50. What they’ll remember most about this game, though, is that they generally got what they wanted against the Jackets (2-3, 9-9).
“They beat the heck out of Wake Forest, they crushed North Carolina, and then we came in here and basically handled them for a lot of the game,” senior forward Will Sherrill said. “It’s great for our confidence.”
It may not have been the full 40 minutes of focus and execution that second-year coach Tony Bennett is seeking, but his players showed they have learned from the recent losses to UNC, Duke and Boston College.
“I just told the guys, ‘Keep knocking.’ I said, ‘You’re getting close. Just keep knocking. You’ve been in a lot of games for stretches,’ and that was our theme going into the game,” Bennett said.
“I think we were sloppy at the very end, and I thought we left a lot of points on the table, whether it was finishing layups or not making free throws, that I think would have made it a little different … But I thought there were stretches of real good basketball, where the floor was spaced, we got nice rhythm looks and defended OK. I didn’t think it was a great defensive performance, but it was solid.”
The Cavaliers came in shooting 37.5 percent from 3-point arc. They’ve been brilliant at times from long range — Bennett’s team was 10 for 13 in an upset of then-No. 15 Minnesota — but dreadful on other occasions.
Remember the 2-for-20 effort from 3-point range in that shocking loss to Seattle? UVa followed that by missing 21 of 24 attempts in a loss to Iowa State.
In this ACC game, however, the treys dropped early and often for the ‘Hoos. They were 7 for 8 from beyond the arc in the first half and 10 for 15 for the game.
“You can put teams in a gym by themselves that wide open, and they are not going to make 7 of 8,” Jackets coach Paul Hewitt said. “It just shows you that have to be prepared to stop people as opposed to hoping that they miss.”
Four players accounted for all of UVa’s 3-point attempts. Harrell was 3 for 4, freshman swingman Joe Harris 3 for 5, junior guard Sammy Zeglinski 2 for 2, and senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan 2 for 4.
“Shooting’s a funny thing,” Bennett said. “You keep shooting as long as they’re good shots and don’t get too discouraged when they’re not going in, and when they are, you just keep letting them fly.”
Iman Shumpert totaled 50 points in Georgia Tech’s wins over UNC and Wake, and he had 19 against UVa. But the ‘Hoos made him earn them. The 6-4 Farrakhan defended Shumpert for much of the game, but 5-11 point guard Jontel Evans and 6-8 forward Akil Mitchell took shifts on the 6-5 junior as well.
“We know he has the ultimate green light,” Zeglinski said. “I think collectively we did a pretty good job on him.”
Farrakhan sparkled at the offensive end, too, scoring 23 points, his career high in ACC play. He matched his career high with 5 assists and also pulled down 3 rebounds.
“I just try to be aggressive,” Farrakhan said. “I think if I’m aggressive or attacking the basket, it’s good for the team. I’m putting myself in the position to make plays for myself and others.”
Bennett said: “He’s showing some completeness offensively. And then defensively, for the most part, he’s being challenged with guarding, usually, a leading scorer or one of their better scorers.”
Twenty-eight times Farrakhan has scored in double figures as a Cavalier. Fourteen have come this season.
“He’s playing like a senior,” Bennett said. “He’s playing well in this stretch, and I’m happy for him.”
Farrakhan is one of Virginia’s team captains, along with Sherrill and Mike Scott. Sherrill missed five games after fracturing his right fibula Nov. 29 at Minnesota, and his role has been limited since his return. Scott, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, is out with a season-ending ankle injury. So Bennett has asked more of Farrakhan.
“Like I said, we’ve been knocking, we’ve been close,” Bennett said, “and I keep encouraging him, ‘Lead, make us finish. Bring the guys together. It’s got to be you. You’re on the floor a lot, and it’s easier to lead on the court.’ “
UVa started four perimeter players — Harris, Evans, Farrakhan and Harrell — and 7-foot junior Assane Sene, who rolled his ankle late in the BC game. Sene didn’t practice Thursday or Friday, and he played only 23 minutes Saturday, but the Cavaliers’ unconventional lineup did not hurt them.
When the 6-6 Harris signed with Virginia, he did not, presumably, expect to spend much time at power forward, but he acquitted himself well against the Jackets. He scored 11 points and, more important, grabbed a career-high 8 rebounds.
“We weren’t sure if Assane was going to play or not,” Harris said, “so I knew coming in that I was going to have to crash the boards hard.”
Bennett said: “I was glad to see Joe stuck his nose in there and grabbed 8 rebounds. We needed that.”
Evans, 3 for 14 from the floor against BC, missed all three of his field-goal attempts versus Georgia Tech. His shot selection was better than in Chestnut Hill, though, and so was his decision-making.
“It’s kind of frustrating when you get all the way to the paint and you can’t finish the layup or whatever,” said Evans, a sophomore who had 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 rebounds, “but that’s just something I need to keep working on. It’ll fall. Some nights they just don’t fall. I just gotta get back to practice and keep working on it.”
Of more concern to Bennett was his team’s lack of accuracy on free throws. Virginia shot nearly as well from 3-point range (66.7 percent) as from the line (22 of 32 for 68.8 percent). Evans was 3 for 6, which lowered his percentage for the season to 57.1.
“I feel like I am a better free-throw shooter than I’ve been showing,” Evans said. “That’s one of the things I’ve been working on. It’s just a confidence thing. I just need to relax on the line and just knock them down.”
Evans drew his coach’s ire in the waning moments of the opening half. Virginia was on a 12-0 run and led 43-27 when an overly aggressive Evans fouled Shumpert near midcourt. That put the Jackets in the one-and-one, and Shumpert hit both free throws with 2.6 seconds left.
On the sideline and then in the locker room, Bennett let Evans know such gambles were not acceptable.
“I went in there at the half and said, ‘You understand why I was mad at you?’ ” Bennett recalled. “And I said, ‘OK, can you move on and forget about it?’ And he did. But I just thought that gave them two points, and points are valuable things in games like that.”
Next up for Virginia is another home game, this one against ACC rival Maryland. The ‘Hoos host the Terrapins (2-3, 12-7) at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“It’s a huge game,” Zeglinski said. “Every game’s a huge game, now, at this part of the season. Maryland’s bring a lot of fans in here. It’s going to be a good atmosphere, and hopefully our fans are ready to cheer us on.”
Zeglinski, who missed the first seven games of the season while recovering from knee surgery, has looked more comfortable on the court recently.
“I think I’m getting there,” he said. “My knee hasn’t been bothering me. It’s just a matter of getting my legs stronger to be able to get down on my shot and be able to get the lift so I’m not short on my shots all the time, like I’ve been in previous games earlier in the season.”
Sherrill’s health is improving, too. The noticeable limp he had had since his return was not evident Saturday, and Sherrill contributed 5 points in 15 minutes.
“My leg, the last couple of days in practice, it’s been feeling like I’ve kind of turned the corner a little bit,” he said. “Today was the first game where I’ve really felt — not quite 100 percent — but really more mobile, and running the floor wasn’t hurting. So that was a good feeling.”