By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — Barring an unforeseen turn of events, the end of the Paul Hewitt era at Georgia Tech is near. UVa made a bad situation worse for the Yellow Jackets’ embattled basketball coach Wednesday night, rallying for a 62-56 win before a sparse, unenthused crowd at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
The mood at Virginia is more upbeat. Second-year coach Tony Bennett’s team isn’t ready to contend for the ACC title, but the Cavaliers continue to put themselves in position to win, and the breakthroughs are coming more frequently.
The win over the Jackets came four nights after UVa beat Virginia Tech 61-54 at John Paul Jones Arena to sweep the regular-season series from its biggest rival. The Wahoos (5-8, 14-13), picked before the season to finish 11th in the ACC, are tied for eighth, and they’ve been without their best player, 6-8 Mike Scott (season-ending ankle injury), since Dec. 22.
“I think the guys have showed resiliency,” Bennett said. The record is “not anything to blow you away, but they’ve hung, they’ve been in games. Lost some heartbreakers, but have kept bouncing back and kept coming.”
The Cavaliers, who host Boston College (6-7, 16-11) at noon Saturday, have won back-to-back games for the first time since early last month.
“We’re definitely going in the right direction as far as this program,” junior guard Sammy Zeglinski said Wednesday night. “I think we know who we are defensively now. We didn’t come out great today, but I thought in the second half we showed a lot of toughness. And that’s what you need to do on the road.”
Virginia beat Georgia Tech 72-64 at JPJ last month in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would suggest. This one was more difficult for the ‘Hoos to secure.
With 6:30 to play, the Jackets (3-10, 11-16) led 46-43 and had fought off several surges by Virginia. But the Cavaliers pulled to 46-46 on a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer by Zeglinski at the 6:08 mark, and an improbable onslaught had begun.
That trey started a 12-0 run that included two free throws, a 3-pointer and a steal by senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan, a fast-break layup by Zeglinski, a sensational blocked shot by junior center Assane Sene and, finally, a basket inside by Sene off a pass from sophomore point guard Jontel Evans.
Sene’s layup made it 55-46 with 2:20 left, and UVa fans watching on ESPNU exhaled. But Virginia has shown a propensity this season for making finishes more dramatic than necessary, and so it was again Wednesday night.
“It’s never easy for us just to get a win in the last two minutes,” Zeglinski said with a smile, shaking his head.
In a span of 12 seconds, Georgia Tech capitalized on a turnover and an ill-advised foul by UVa and scored five points to pull to 55-51.
Even after a clutch 3-pointer by freshman forward Joe Harris made it 59-53 with 24 seconds left, the Jackets made things interesting.
Reserve point guard Mfon Udofia, a former UVa recruiting target, hit a trey to make it 59-56 with 17 seconds to play. Farrakhan went 1 for 2 from the line to extend UVa’s lead to 60-56. Georgia Tech missed a 3-pointer at the other end, but the Cavaliers could not corral the rebound, and the ball came to Udofia on the right wing.
Udofia launched an off-balance attempt from the deep right wing. The heave missed, but Sene was called for a foul, and so Udofia went to the line for three free throws.
The Jackets’ comeback ended there. Udofia, who entered the game shooting 60.3 percent from the line, missed his first free throw, and then his second. The third he missed intentionally, and the rebound went out of bounds to UVa. Farrakhan’s two free throws with 2.6 seconds left closed out the scoring, and the Cavaliers celebrated their first road victory of 2011.
“We keep using that analogy about knocking on the door,” Bennett said. “I told [the players], ‘This was a big game. You had a nice win against Virginia Tech. Are you just gonna go back to the status quo and not fight like crazy? Can you do something? Can you make a little statement by coming on the road and beating a team?’
“Yes, Georgia Tech is in desperation mode a little bit, but they’re hard to beat at home, and they have capable players … I liked how we responded after a nice win on Saturday.”
The official attendance Wednesday night was 5,537, but there appeared to be perhaps 2,000 fans at Alexander — very few of whom were Georgia Tech students — at the opening tip. The lack of energy in the arena seemed to affect UVa more than it did the Jackets, who led 23-14 with 6:25 left in the first half.
“I think today we came out pretty flat,” said senior forward Will Sherrill, who contributed five points off the bench in his first appearance since re-injuring his right leg Feb. 5 at Miami.
“I think part of that was, it’s hard to get up for a game where the crowd is really empty, and their crowd’s not into it. But Coach Bennett really challenged us with about seven minutes left in the half to start playing tough. We were playing pretty soft. And then in the second half we really played much better defense.”
Bennett is a man-to-man devotee, but he mixed in a 2-3 zone for stretches of the second half.
“We worked on it [in practice] just enough to be OK,” Bennett said. “Nothing great. But I thought it was enough of a change of pace [to throw off the Jackets].”
“I was really surprised that we went zone, because we’re basically a man-to-man team,” he said. “But for not working on it at all that much, only a little bit, it really bothered them. You could tell it bothered them a little bit. We did a good job of just rotating and just trying the best we can to contest shots and just be active in the zone.”
The Yellow Jackets outrebounded UVa 40-27, but they shot only 37.5 percent from the floor. Georgia Tech’s best player, junior guard Iman Shumpert, missed 7 of 11 shots from the field and finished with 12 points, five fewer than his average.
Virginia scored 16 points in the game’s first 16 minutes and 45 seconds. In the final 3:15 of the opening half, the ‘Hoos scored 10. Sherrill and Farrakhan each hit a late 3-pointer, and UVa went into the break thrilled that Tech’s lead was only 28-26.
“That was big,” Sherrill said, “because we really felt coming into halftime that we’d played about as poorly defensively as we’d played maybe all season, or at least in a long time. And so to only be down two, we looked at ourselves and said, ‘Hey, we played that bad and we’re only down two. If we go out and get back to playing our game, we’re going to take this game.’ ”
Farrakhan led Virginia with 17 points. Neither Sene nor Evans scored in double figures, but each made an enormous contribution: Sene with 9 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals, Evans with 9 points, 7 assists, 2 steals and only 1 turnover.
“I thought they were terrific,” Bennett said. “I really did.”
Zeglinski didn’t score until the 15:12 mark of second half, when he made a trey to pull UVa to 37-36. But he finished with 8 points and enhanced his reputation as a player who delivers with the game on the line.
Harris (11 points) would like that same reputation, and his late trey was one of the most memorable shots of his college career. After hitting two 3-pointers in the game’s first five minutes Wednesday night, Harris had cooled off. But he didn’t hesitate when the ball came to him from Evans with the shot clock winding down.
“You can’t think about any of the misses,” Harris said. “Being a shooter, that’s the last thing you want to think about, the last shot you missed. You gotta have a short-term memory.”
Bennett said: “I was glad to see him really step up and knock it down, as did Sammy and Mu late, because Joe has had a couple of those shots late in games and either didn’t shoot it or had not hit ’em. This time he did, and hopefully he grew up right before our eyes with that shot.”