By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — No matter what else happens, this UVa men’s basketball team will always be able to say it swept its two regular-season games with Virginia Tech. In a season in which the Cavaliers have faced considerable adversity, including the loss of their best player, that’s no small feat.
On Dec. 5, in the ACC opener for both teams, the Wahoos stunned the Hokies 57-54 in Blacksburg. The rematch was Saturday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena, and this time UVa prevailed 61-54, delighting most in the crowd of 13,679.
“That was fun,” freshman forward Akil Mitchell said. “I think that might be the loudest I’ve ever heard JPJ get.”
The victory ended a three-game losing streak for the ‘Hoos (4-8, 13-13) and clinched their first regular-season sweep of the Hokies in five years. It also dealt a blow to Tech’s hopes of advancing to the NCAA tournament.
For a UVa team whose top eight healthy players include four freshmen and a sophomore, it’s difficult to overstate what the win over Tech (7-5, 17-8) meant.
“You prepare for every game like you want to win, of course,” Mitchell said, “but this one was, I think, especially important for the morale of everybody, for our fan base, for everything that we stand for, the toughness, being able to bounce back.
“I think it’s big for the future, just as big as it is for this season.”
The Hokies were coming off a win over Maryland in which they scored 91 points. Two nights before that, Virginia Tech had scored 102 in a rout of Georgia Tech.
If the Cavaliers allowed Tech to run wild like that Saturday, second-year coach Tony Bennett told his players before the game, they would have no chance of winning.
“If we can get some transition buckets, we want ’em, but if [the Hokies] start getting going in transition, I said, it’ll be over before it starts,” Bennett told reporters afterward.
“I think [the players] really understood that. And that was the key to our first victory against them, too, making [the Hokies] on almost every possession play against a set defense. They can score in a hurry, and they get down the floor. So that’s where it had to start.”
Tech senior Malcolm Delaney scored a game-high 22 points, but the all-ACC guard took 22 shots, including 15 from beyond the arc. Overall, the Hokies shot only 40.4 percent from the field against UVa’s rugged man-to-man defense.
The Hokies spent much of the game in a 2-3 zone, and that was fine with UVa. The Cavaliers were 11 for 23 from 3-point range and shot 45.7 percent overall from the floor. Considering how poorly Virginia shot Wednesday night against No. 5 Duke, that qualified as dazzling marksmanship.
In a 15-point loss to the Blue Devils, the ‘Hoos made only 16 of 56 shots from the field. They scored a season-low 41 points.
“I feel like all those shots that were popping out against Duke kind of went in tonight,” junior guard Sammy Zeglinski said.
Freshman forward Joe Harris agreed. “It was just one of those nights where the ball was going in the hole. Kind of the opposite of Duke.”
Zeglinski, scoreless in the Dec. 5 win over VPI, which was his first game back from a knee injury, had 10 points Saturday. Harris made four 3-pointers, scored 15 points and tied his career high with three steals.
Senior forward Mike Scott, who contributed 21 points and 13 rebounds in UVa’s win at Cassell Coliseum, is out with a season-ending ankle injury. With forward Will Sherrill still sidelined by a leg injury, the only senior to play for Virginia on Saturday was guard Mustapha Farrakhan, and he bounced back from his subpar performances against Florida State and Duke.
Farrakhan scored 13 of his team-high 16 points in the second half Saturday. Ten came after a frightening fall that knocked him out of the game for a four-minute stretch of the second half.
The 6-4 left-hander landed hard on his shooting wrist, and the impact also knocked the wind out of him.
At first, Farrakhan said later, “I felt like I was going to throw up on the court. That’s why I couldn’t get up or roll over, because I was in a lot of pain. But when [athletic trainer] Ethan [Saliba] checked my pulse and made sure I wasn’t light-headed, I was able to go back out there and play.”
Virginia built its lead to 44-29 with Farrakhan out of the game. The Hokies were not about to go quietly, though, and in a flash they pulled to 44-36. Junior center Assane Sene hit 1 of 2 free throws to push UVa’s lead back to nine, but Delaney answered with back-to-back treys, and suddenly it was a three-point game.
Bennett called a timeout with 7:42 left. In the huddle, he stayed calm. His demeanor reassured his players.
“He wasn’t nervous at all, so we weren’t nervous,” sophomore point guard Jontel Evans said. “That’s the guy we look to for confidence.”
The Cavaliers look to Farrakhan, a team captain, for leadership and for scoring, and he delivered both at this critical juncture.
With 7:22 remaining, Farrakhan’s third 3-pointer made it 48-42 and allowed the Cavaliers (and their fans) to exhale. Later, after his head fake got a Hokie out of position, Farrakhan dribbled in for a pullup jumper that put Virginia up 50-44 with 4:08 left.
He spent most of the first half on the bench with two fouls, but Farrakhan drew inspiration from his teammates’ play. “And then in the second half I was just like, ‘I just want to do anything to be out there and help my team.’ This is definitely a rivalry game, and I wanted to be out there.”
Farrakhan converted a fast-break layup off a pass from Zeglinski to make it 54-46 with 54 seconds left. Delaney responded with two NBA-length 3-pointers to add some drama, but Harris and Farrakhan each went 3 for 4 from the line in the final 25 seconds to seal Virginia’s sweep.
“Delaney was just making some ridiculous shots,” Zeglinski said. “You can’t really defend against those shots. We were switching. He stepped up and made some big shots, but I thought we did a good job of keeping it together.”
Tech coach Seth Greenberg was left to rue UVa’s success late in the shot clock. Two of Zeglinski’s three 3-pointers beat the buzzer, and in each case he was off-balance when he launched the ball.
“That’s his bread and butter,” Evans said. “At the end of the shot clock, it’s almost automatic. He just stays with his same shot and knocks it down with confidence.”
Evans, not known for his outside shooting, burned Tech in similar fashion with a 3-pointer late in the first half, then beat the shot clock with a pullup jumper that dropped through to put the ‘Hoos up 28-23 at the break.
“You have to give them credit,” Greenberg said. “They ran the clock down and made big shots. I always say it’s a make-and-miss game. I think that game was a pretty good example of that. They wanted us to guard for 30 seconds, and most of the time we did a pretty good job for the first 28 or so. They made numerous shots at the end of the shot clock and you have to give them credit for that. Guys made big shots and tough shots.”
Bennett liked much of what he saw Saturday, especially the rebounding of the 6-8 Mitchell and the 6-6 Harris, each of whom had 7 boards. That matched Mitchell’s career high, and no doubt pleased assistant coach Jason Williford as well.
“I talked to Coach Williford, and before the game started he told me, ‘Go get every rebound,’ ” Mitchell said. “He said every rebound is mine, so that’s what I tried to focus on in this game.”
Bennett said: “It was physical down there. It looked like [Mitchell and Harris] were really trying hard to block out and then going up and just pursuing the ball and coming down with them. I thought they showed a nose for the ball and a level of toughness we had to [have] … They battled.”
That was true of all of Bennett’s players Saturday.
“That was real fun,” Evans said. “Coming in and beating Virginia Tech, our rivals, after we’ve been on a losing streak, it just feels real good to beat them and get back on track.
“It’s always feisty, because it’s our in-state rivals, and they want to beat us as bad as we want to beat them. It’s always going to be a war out there. Tonight was a war, and we ended up winning.”