By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the brink of another breakdown, the UVa men’s basketball team pulled itself together late Wednesday night. The Cavaliers made just enough plays in the final minute to avoid an excruciating defeat at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We almost let that one slip, but we just stayed strong and fought it out,” senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan said after Virginia’s 49-47 victory over ACC foe Clemson.
“It wasn’t pretty, but I’ll take it.”
Not since Dec. 1, 2004, when they won a 48-44 shootout with Northwestern, had the Wahoos scored so few points in a victory. During a second-half span that lasted nearly eight minutes, UVa scored all of two points Wednesday night against the taller, quicker, more athletic Tigers.
“The wheels were wobbling a little bit at the end,” second-year coach Tony Bennett said, “and we’ve been there, but we got enough stops, hit a layup, hit a pullup and did enough things well to beat a good team.”
Junior guard Sammy Zeglinski got Virginia (3-5, 12-10) going early, hitting three 3-pointers in the first 3 minutes, 15 seconds. Farrakhan, with an assist from 7-foot center Assane Sene, made the big plays at the end.
The ‘Hoos came into this one having lost five of their previous six games. In three of those defeats, including a setback Saturday at Wake Forest, UVa had blown sizeable second-half leads. So when Clemson (4-4, 15-7) went on a 19-4 run and pulled even at 42-42 with 49 seconds left, the Cavaliers could have been forgiven for thinking, “Here we go again.”
“You think about that sometimes, but you just gotta keep fighting,” sophomore point guard Jontel Evans said. “You gotta stay together and stay aggressive.”
In the first half, Farrakhan had scored as many points as Clemson — 13. That was the fewest ever scored in a half by any team at JPJ. Now the 6-4 left-hander delivered one of the biggest shots of his college career, pulling up off the dribble for a 13-foot jumper from left of the lane.
“It was just a read,” Farrakhan said. “If nobody was at the lane, I would have attacked all the way, but since I made enough space for my pullup, I just shot the pullup.”
It dropped through with 34 seconds left to make it 44-42. Eight seconds later, Tigers point guard Demontez Stitt missed the front end of one-and-one. Zeglinski pulled down one of his five rebounds and passed to Farrakhan, who was fouled.
With 23 seconds to play, Farrakhan coolly hit both ends of a one-and-one. Then, after a Clemson putback made it 46-44, he again went to the line for a one-and-one. Farrakhan again hit both shots.
That appeared to seal Virginia’s victory, but with 3.1 seconds left, Milton Jennings bombed in a 25-footer that pulled Clemson to 48-47 and made many in the crowd of 8,684 fear the worst. Virginia inbounded the ball to Farrakhan, but he hurt his left knee on a hard foul by Tanner Smith.
Confusion followed. UVa’s veteran athletic trainer, Ethan Saliba, sprinted across the floor to check on Farrakhan. The injury didn’t appear serious, but Saliba’s presence on the court, Bennett later explained, meant that Farrakhan could not shoot the free throws. The Tigers got to choose Virginia’s shooter, and they picked Sene.
He came in shooting only 55.8 percent from the line, but with 2.8 seconds remaining Sene sank the first of his two free throws. He missed the second, and Clemson rebounded. But UVa freshman Akil Mitchell deflected a pass in the backcourt, and time expired before the Tigers could get off a shot.
“It was quite a scene at the end with all the stuff going on,” Bennett said.
The first half had a bizarre quality too. Virginia, which missed all nine of its 3-point attempts after intermission, went 7 for 12 from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes. Zeglinski was 4 for 4 and Farrakhan 3 for 5.
Clemson, meanwhile, missed all eight of its long-range attempts and 16 of 22 shots overall in the first half. Some of that was poor shooting. But UVa’s stifling defense contributed to the Tigers’ offensive woes, too.
His team’s 15 turnovers didn’t please Bennett. Neither did the Tigers’ dominance on the backboards, especially at the offensive end, where they came away with 18 rebounds.
Overall, though, that “was some of our best half-court defense we’ve played in a while,” Bennett said. “When our defense was set, I thought it was very good, and it made all the difference in the world.”
In rallying from 10 points down in the second half against UVa, Wake scored on 17 of its final 20 possessions. Nothing came easily for Clemson, which had won 10 of its previous 12 games.
“We’ll take it any way we can, but I think we have to be very good defensively,” Bennett said. “We know that we can’t exchange buckets. We exchanged buckets with Wake and couldn’t come up with stops … If you can’t come up with stops late in the game, you’re not going to win many games.”
Evans, UVa’s best on-the-ball defender, helped limit Stitt to 8 points. Stitt, Clemson’s leading scorer, has failed to reach double figures only three times this season. He didn’t score Wednesday night until the 9:00 mark of the second half.
“Jontel was locked in, and he was ready, and there was good team defense,” Bennett said. “The guys were in the gaps, poked a few balls away. There was a collective effort tonight defensively that was more sustainable that it’s been, and I think it really stung after Wake Forest, the breakdowns we had from the defensive standpoint against them.
“And we needed it, because we were turning it over at the end, and [The Tigers] were in desperation mode and really pressing up. You have to make some plays off the dribble, and we were having a little trouble, but the defense was good enough, and [Clemson is] a good team. A very good team.”
The Tigers were coming off a 62-44 rout of Florida State. That win came four days after Clemson beat NC State 60-50. The 94 points were the fewest allowed by the Tigers in consecutive ACC games since 1958-59.
“They just blasted Florida State, who is one of the better teams in the league, and they’re playing as well as anybody right now,” UVa forward Will Sherrill said. “What Coach talked about all week leading up to today was we had to match their intensity, match their physicality, and I thought we did that. The way we started the game, especially defensively, that really set the tone.”
Virginia led 29-13 at the break. The ‘Hoos didn’t score in the second half, however, until Evans stole the ball and drove for a layup that made it 31-18 with 15:55 left.
Evans isn’t known for his offense, but he had two huge baskets late. The first, a driving layup with his left hand, pushed UVa’s lead to 40-29 with 6:11 left. The next, after a 6-0 run by Clemson, was a right-handed drive that made it 42-35 at the 3:45 mark.
“Those were shots I would not have taken last year,” Evans said. “I don’t think I would have been that aggressive last year. But this year we worked on it all summer and all preseason, and in practice we still work on shots like that, going to the left and going to the right and finishing.”
Bennett shook up his starting lineup Wednesday night, replacing freshman KT Harrell with Zeglinski at shooting guard. Zeglinski handles the ball better than Harrell, and Bennett knew Clemson would try to pressure his team.
“It was a matchup thing,” Bennett said. “I wouldn’t say I knew he was going to hit his first four 3s, but I liked his ballhandling ability and just his experience defensively in our system. I just thought, ‘We’ve lost a couple tough ones, let’s just make a change.’ “
Zeglinski matched his season high with 12 points, all coming in the first seven minutes.
“We have some limitations, that’s obvious,” Bennett said, “but the guys found a way to collectively come together and say, ‘All right, we’re going to do this together on the defensive end,’ and Sammy got us off to a great start.”
Zeglinski said: “I just wanted to bring an energy to the game, be a sparkplug, so I came out a little aggressive, and I was feeling it early. I was just proud of our defense, in the first half especially, holding them to 13 points. That was big.”
Virginia’s next two games are on the road: Saturday afternoon at Miami and Feb. 12 at Florida State. The Cavaliers never have beaten Miami in Coral Gables, and they haven’t won in Tallahassee since Feb. 17, 2001. That made the Clemson game even more critical for the ‘Hoos.
“It was just important to get a win, any way that we could,” Zeglinski said. “It wasn’t pretty in the second half — offensively we struggled a little bit — but defense was our staple all night, and we were able to pull out the victory.”