By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The UVa men’s basketball team limped into last year’s ACC tournament. After winning five of its first seven conference games, Virginia lost the final nine, six by double figures.
“I think we have a lot more confidence this year,” junior guard Sammy Zeglinski said Saturday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
That confidence appears well-founded. Earlier that day in College Park, Zeglinski and his teammates had spoiled Senior Day at Maryland, knocking off the Terrapins 74-60 at Comcast Center.
“It was a hostile environment, and our guys had a presence about them that was good,” said Tony Bennett, UVa’s second-year coach.
The Wahoos’ point total was their highest in an ACC game this season. Zeglinski made 6 of 7 shots from beyond the arc and finished with a career-high 25 points.
Also scoring in double figures for UVa were senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan (19 points) and junior center Assane Sene, who matched his career high with 15. Senior forward Will Sherrill also tied a career high by pulling down 9 rebounds.
“It was great,” said Zeglinski, who like his teammates, never had won at Comcast Center and enjoyed seeing the home fans heading home early.
“We knew it was going to be a good game, because they’re so physical, and the crowd is pretty hostile. I thought we grew up a little bit, and it was definitely a good win for our program.”
The victory was the fourth in five games for UVa (7-9, 16-14). The team picked to finish 11th in the ACC ended the regular season tied for seventh with Maryland (7-9, 18-13).
“The main thing for us is, will we keep playing the kind of basketball we’ve been playing?” Bennett said Saturday night en route to a high school game in Richmond.
He’ll find out soon enough. The ACC tourney starts Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., and Bennett’s team will play in the opening game.
At noon, No. 8 seed UVa takes on No. 9 seed Miami (6-10, 18-13). The winner advances to meet No. 1 seed North Carolina in Friday’s first quarterfinal.
“I think we’re all just excited to keep playing, to have this opportunity, this challenge,” Zeglinski said.
Maryland posed a major challenge Saturday afternoon. At JPJ last month, after all, the Terps had humbled the ‘Hoos in a 66-42 romp. Bennett’s players had not forgotten that defeat.
“We definitely looked back at that game when we were getting ready to play them again,” Zeglinski said. “We knew they came in here and handled us pretty easily. They kind of punked us a little bit. We knew we had to toughen up, and we focused on some key things to help our chances, just being able to take care of the ball and limiting their offensive rebounds.”
Virginia had a season-low six turnovers Saturday, the last of which came in the final seconds when Bennett instructed Zeglinski to let the shot clock expire rather than attempt a shot. UVa outrebounded the Terps 32-29 and limited them to seven offensive boards. Maryland scored only two fast-break points.
“That’s how you win,” Bennett told reporters in College Park. “You limit the second-chance points. You don’t give them easy baskets. You don’t turn the ball over and don’t let them run the fast [break], especially a fast team like Maryland.”
In the game at JPJ, Maryland’s pressure defenses had rattled the Cavaliers, who turned the ball over 15 times. In the days leading up to the rematch, Bennett periodically had his players practice against seven pressing, trapping defenders.
That helped, Zeglinski acknowledged. “A lot of it’s just mental, though, just being mentally strong and being in the right position,” he added. “We only had about one turnover against the press [Saturday], and I think Mu actually got it right back.”
UVa’s starters — Zeglinski, Farrakhan, Sene, Sherrill and freshman swingman Joe Harris — each played at least 31 minutes at Comcast Center. Sene logged a career-high 34 and made the most of those minutes. In addition to his 15 points, Sene had 5 rebounds and, with 4:38 to play, blocked a dunk attempt by 6-10 center Jordan Williams (17 points, 6 rebounds, 6 blocks) that would have cut Maryland’s deficit to three.
In his past 10 games, Sene is 29 for 51 from the floor.
“He’s improved his hands so much,” Zeglinski said. “And [Sene’s ability] to take the contact and finish has been huge for us. But even more impressive was his willingness to screen for the guards and just get us open.”
The Cavaliers’ seven ACC wins are their most since 2006-07, when they went 11-5 in the conference.
“And we easily could be 10-6 right now, but we let some slip away,” Zeglinski said. “So now we got to go into the tournament and see what we can do.”
One of the games that slipped away was played Feb. 5 in Coral Gables, Fla. Miami rallied that afternoon for a 70-68 overtime win over Virginia, which led by seven with 1:50 left in the second half.
The ‘Hoos made only 9 of 22 free throws in that numbing defeat. Moreover, UVa was whistled for a foul on a Miami 3-point attempt twice in the final 40 seconds of regulation.
The loss ranks among the low points of Bennett’s two seasons at UVa. If the Cavaliers can avenge that defeat Thursday, however, they would move to three games over .500, and might well find themselves still playing after the ACC tournament.
“That would be awesome for our seniors, to get into postseason play,” Zeglinski said. “We’re just going to take it one game at a time and see what could happen.”