By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — By late Thursday afternoon, Tony Bennett’s basketball team will be in the tropics, far, far away from UVa’s Grounds and John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers played their first two games of the season at home. Their next three will be at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas, site of the eight-team Paradise Jam tournament, starting Friday night against TCU (2-0).
UVa is 2-0, too, after convincing victories over South Carolina State (75-38) and Winthrop (69-48) at JPJ. The games had few similarities, though. The Wahoos took control early against SC State and never were threatened Sunday afternoon.
Two nights later, against a tougher opponent, UVa found itself seriously tested in the second half. Back-to-back 3-pointers by freshman guard Andre Smith gave Winthrop a 44-41 lead with 10:28 to play, and the crowd of 7,983 grew uneasy.
About a minute earlier, after the Eagles pulled to 39-38, Bennett had reassured his players during a timeout.
“I said, ‘We need to be in this spot. We need to be able to get stops, come up with big buckets,’ ” Bennett told reporters after the game. “I said, ‘We’re fine.’ We talked about that: ‘Keep playing, don’t yield, and it’s OK we’re in this spot, and we need to mature in this situation,’ and I thought the guys did a nice job.”
Indeed, the ‘Hoos held Winthrop (0-2) to four points in the final 10 minutes. On a night when Bennett had only eight scholarship players available, he got significant contributions from most of them, including junior point guard Jontel Evans, senior forward Mike Scott, senior center Assane Sene, freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon and sophomore forward Akil Mitchell.
“There’s going to be close games,” Evans said after scoring 17 points, six more than his previous career high. “It’s just how you approach them. How do you respond? We were in a dog fight the whole game, and we just came out and responded well. We knew it was going to start on the defensive end, because that’s our bread and butter. Once we got stops on the defensive end, that led to buckets on the offensive side.”
The ‘Hoos drew even at 44-44 when sophomore guard KT Harrell passed to Brogdon for a 3-pointer. They went ahead for good when Brogdon stole the ball and then fed Harrell for a transition layup that made it 46-44 with 9:35 remaining.
“If we’re going to expect to beat elite teams, then we need to be tested, we need to be challenged,” said Mitchell, who had 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 points and 1 steal in 20 minutes off the bench. “Like Coach Bennett said, that’s a good spot for us to be in if we want to grow as a team.”
For the second straight game, UVa played without guard Sammy Zeglinski and power forward Darion Atkins. (The team’s other scholarship player, 6-6 freshman Paul Jesperson, is redshirting this season.)
Atkins, a freshman who was suspended for violating team rules, will not be available until Virginia’s second game at the Paradise Jam. Bennett hopes to have Zeglinski, a fifth-year senior who’s recovering from a sprained ankle, back for the TCU game.
Zeglinski, who has started 55 games for the Cavaliers, is one of the team’s best 3-point shooters, and his absence was felt during the game’s first 30 minutes Tuesday night. Winthrop stayed in a zone defense that Virginia failed to attack aggressively.
“You could see we were a little uneasy and needed a calming hand or some maturity out there in the first half, and certainly Sammy brings that,” Bennett said. “He’s progressing. We’ll see where that goes. But I hope we’ll just continue to establish the mindset that we had in the second half.”
Winthrop coach Randy Peele, a former Virginia Tech assistant, said Bennett’s players “had to work harder for baskets when I went to the zone. But he’s got a fabulous team. I love the way they share the ball. Defensively, I love the way they close after the ball. They get the gaps and penetration, and the biggest compliment I can say about his team is that they don’t beat themselves. I think that’s huge.”
Scott, a 6-8, 237-pound fifth-year senior, led the Cavaliers with 18 points and 8 rebounds. But for an almost-six-minute stretch of the second half — the stretch when Virginia pulled away — Bennett kept Scott on the bench and went with the 7-0, 239-pound Sene and the 6-8, 234-pound Mitchell in the post.
“Akil and Assane were doing a terrific job,” Bennett said, “and I told Mike, “We’re defending so well that we’re going with this group.’ We were getting the stops. Not that Mike couldn’t have been in there to help getting stops. But that’s a team. Guys gotta step up at different times. They were hurting us late in the first half by almost turning the corner on their ball screens, and we really got aggressive, and I thought Assane and Akil gave us a nice boost of energy. And sometimes when there’s continuity and a team’s playing well, you stick with that group.”
Scott said: “I was happy that I saw that. They did that without me, and I was very proud of my teammates for doing that.”
With Zeglinski out, UVa’s top perimeters shooters are Harrell and sophomore swingman Joe Harris. They were a combined 5 for 19 from the floor against Winthrop — 2 for 11 from 3-point range — but each asserted himself at crucial times in the second half. So did Brogdon. Scoreless in the first half, he finished with 8 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal.
“I think at halftime we all talked about being aggressive,” said Brogdon, who split time between shooting guard and the point. “On the team, one of my roles is being one of the penetrators, and I have to get [inside] the zone. If I’m not going to do it, there aren’t many people that are. So that’s my job. I need to get in the zone and make decisions with the ball.”
On a night when Winthrop missed 10 of 19 free throws, Virginia was perfect from the line. The Cavaliers made all 19 of their foul shoots, eclipsing the previous school record (16 of 16) set against South Carolina on Jan. 8, 1965.
That delighted Bennett. So did the play of Evans, who celebrated his 21st birthday this week. Evans, who had never made more than one 3-pointer in a college game before Tuesday night, was 2 for 2 from long range against Winthrop.
“That was great to see,” Harris said. “The guy, he’s worked so hard in the offseason on his shot, and his jumper looks really good.”
Evans played only nine minutes in the first half after picking up two early fouls, but he made his presence known after intermission with his “ability to pressure the ball, get to the lane,” Bennett said. “I was proud of the way he responded and kept his composure.”
Since the end of last season, Evans has elevated his game through countless hours in the gym. So, said the Cavaliers’ third-year coach, have his other returning players.
“The guys really did pay the price in the offseason,” Bennett said. “It’s not just lip service. Everybody says they go to work, but they took it upon themselves and they really were purposeful in the areas they needed to address. So you can see the physical maturity, the skill maturity, and I think even emotionally they’re in a better place. And Jontel’s an upperclassman now, and I think that’s the big jump.”