By Jeff White
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — A second straight loss at the Paradise Jam would have been “definitely unsatisfactory,” in senior forward Mike Scott’s words, and the UVa men’s basketball team did not let that happen Saturday afternoon.
Virginia’s 49-35 victory over Drexel in hoops at the University of the Virgin Islands featured none of the drama that marked Virginia’s win over Florida State in football that night in Tallahassee. The teams combined to miss 65 shots from the floor in an often gruesome display of offensive inefficiency at UVI’s Sports and Fitness Center.
When it ended, though, third-year coach Tony Bennett and his players left the 3,500-seat gym in much better moods than they had Friday night. In the Cavaliers’ Paradise Jam opener, they had turned the ball over 19 times and missed 10 free throws in a 57-55 loss to TCU that dumped them into the loser’s bracket of this eight-team tournament.
In its Paradise Jam finale, UVa (3-1) will meet Drake (3-1) in the fifth-place game Monday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.
“For us to be able to bounce back after a tough loss yesterday, I think that says a lot about us as a team,” sophomore swingman Joe Harris said Saturday.
Harris scored seven points in the final 5:21 to help the Wahoos pull away from the Dragons (1-2), who were picked to finish first in the Colonial Athletic Association by the coaches in that league.
“The guys hung in there,” Bennett said, “and I told them before the game, ‘Whoever wants this one the most is going to get this one.’ “
The 49 points matched the fewest the ‘Hoos have scored in a victory during Bennett’s tenure. Forty-one came from three players: Scott (21), Harris (12) and fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski (8). Virginia took care of the ball (eight turnovers) and made most of its free throws (18 of 21) Saturday, but for the second straight game appeared out of sync on offense.
“I think it’s something that will come with some more time,” Zeglinski said. “We’re getting some good looks, and some shots just aren’t going down. But defense is always going to be our staple. It’s going to keep us in games. We haven’t played the best offense so far down here, but defense kept us in the game [against TCU], and we still almost came out with the win, even though we played horrible.”
Drexel’s best player is 6-5 left-hander Samme Givens, an undersized power forward who battles relentlessly for position in the low post. Virtually every time Givens touched the ball on the block, the ‘Hoos double-teamed him Saturday.
“I think he had to work for everything he got tonight,” Scott said. “We really didn’t ease up on him.”
Givens scored only two points in the first half, after which UVa led 28-14. He finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but nothing came easily for a player Zeglinski remembers well from their AAU encounters as Philadelphia schoolboys.
“He used to kill us back in the day,” Zeglinski said.
The Dragons ratcheted up their defensive intensity early in the second half, with the desired effect. UVa’s offense began breaking down on virtually every possession.
Seven minutes passed before Virginia scored its first second-half points. They came on a dunk follow by Scott after a Zeglinski miss. Scott made 1 of 2 free throws 48 seconds later to push the Cavaliers’ lead to 32-21 at the 12:11 mark.
And then, nothing. The ‘Hoos did not score again for more than six minutes, a stretch in which Drexel sliced its deficit to six points. Finally, though, an improbable hero stepped forward for Virginia: senior center Assane Sene. The 7-0 left-hander, not known for his touch around the basket, tossed in a right-handed jump hook to make it 33-25 with 5:59 left.
“That was crunch for him to make a post move like that,” Scott said.
Harris said: “He kind of gave the guy a little move and had the right-handed hook. It surprised me, but I’m glad it went in.”
Drexel answered at the other end, but then Scott fed Harris for a 3-pointer that made it 36-27, and the crisis had passed for the Cavaliers.
“We had a tough go there,” Harris said. “It just seemed like nothing was going in, we couldn’t even buy a bucket. But Mike was drawing a lot of defense, and he made a really nice pass to me up top, and I had a room-and-rhythm look, so I just knocked it down.”
After the Dragons pulled to 36-29, Harris burned them again, this time with a pull-up 15-footer. From there, it came down to free-throw shooting for the ‘Hoos, and they aced the test.
Led by Scott, who was 7 for 8 during that span, Virginia made 11 of 12 from the line in the final 3:08. Before leaving for St. Thomas, UVa had hit all 19 of its foul shots against Winthrop, which made his team’s struggles from the line (19 of 29) against TCU so frustrating for Bennett.
“We just gotta take every opportunity that comes, and when you step to the line and make them, hopefully it gives you confidence,” Bennett said. “[Drexel] cut it to six at one point, and then we battled back, kept our composure. I thought Joe did a nice job down the stretch, too. That was the difference for us.”
Against UVa’s suffocating defense, Drexel made only 14 of 54 shots from the floor. The 35 points are the fewest the ‘Hoos have allowed under Bennett. His team was more accurate — 14 of 39 — but far from perfect. Zeglinski (3 for 6) was the only Virginia player to make at least 50 percent of his field-goal attempts. Still, Bennett was happier about his team’s offensive performance than he had been Friday night, when the Cavaliers piled up turnover after turnover and took 16 contested shots early in the shot clock.
“We got sped up [against TCU],” Bennett said. “One pass, and we shot contested shots. So we said, ‘Let’s not have empty possessions. Let’s either get a good, clean rhythm shot early, or break them down so we can maybe go inside more, or just wear that defense down a little bit.’ “
By showing more patience, UVa created more opportunities for its best player. The 6-8 Scott, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury, opened the game with a 3-pointer, and by the end he had his first double-double of the year (and 25th of his career).
“He had a nice composure about himself, and I thought it was good to see him step to the line, knock the free throws down and make some big buckets,” Bennett said. “I know he was frustrated with some of the ones he missed, but part of that hopefully is just getting back into that timing and game shape that you miss when you don’t play for a year.”
After averaging 72 points in its first two games, victories over South Carolina State and Winthrop at John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia has averaged 52 at the Paradise Jam.
“Both games [in St. Thomas] were very intense and very physical,” Bennett said Saturday. “Different games have different kinds of flow to them. And the way we defend, it lowers the possessions, because teams can’t score right away. But seeing that ball go in [late in the game Saturday] was good, and hopefully when Sammy gets healthier, that’ll loosen some things up.”
Zeglinski, one of the team’s top 3-point shooters, missed UVa’s first two games while recovering from a sprained right ankle. He made his 2011-12 debut Friday but took a blow to his sore ankle in the second half from a TCU player diving for a loose ball, and Zeglinski wasn’t sure he would be able to play against Drexel.
“When I woke up this morning, there was a little bit of a doubt,” Zeglinski said late Saturday afternoon. “It was actually pretty sore this morning, but we needed to get this win.”