By Jeff White
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — His hometown Green Bay Packers are not the only football team Tony Bennett follows. That became clear again Sunday morning when elevator doors opened and Bennett spotted a colleague.
“Was that awesome?” Bennett exclaimed.
The smile on Bennett’s face provided the answer. For everyone associated with UVa athletics, what happened late Saturday night in Tallahassee, Fla., was indeed awesome, and then some.
On this sun-soaked Caribbean island, some 1,600 miles away from Tallahassee, Bennett’s basketball team is playing in the Paradise Jam tournament. Virginia beat Drexel 49-35 on Saturday afternoon at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Back at the team hotel that night, members of the traveling party, including Bennett and most of his players, tuned in to ESPN2 and saw Mike London’s football team knock off Florida State 14-13 to stay in contention for the ACC championship.
“It was crazy,” junior point guard Jontel Evans said Sunday morning. “I was going off.”
Like London, the Cavaliers’ second-year head coach, Evans starred in football at Hampton’s Bethel High School. Evans, who played tailback, could have pursued a college career in football, and he remains passionate about the sport. There was never any question about how he would spend his Saturday night.
Evans watched the FSU game in sophomore guard KT Harrell’s room and sweated through the seemingly interminable final minute of the game, when every decision by the officials seemed to go against Virginia.
“I felt like they were trying to take it from us, I swear,” Evans said. “But we pulled through, and the ball doesn’t lie, and it ended up going in our favor. Great win for us.”
Tailback Kevin Parks ran for the touchdown that pulled UVa to 13-13 with 1:16 left, and then Robert Randolph kick what turned out to be the game-winning extra point. The play that had Bennett and others here raving Sunday morning, however, was made by the Wahoos’ All-ACC cornerback.
“Chase Minnifield hauled the dude down at the 1-yard line!” said senior forward Mike Scott, an avid football fan. “That’s the play of the game.”
In the third quarter, FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel completed a pass to wideout Bert Reed, who raced through UVa’s secondary, apparently headed for a 69-yard TD. But Minnifield never quit on the play. He chased down Reed and tackled him at the Virginia 1.
The Seminoles lost a yard on first down, threw an incompletion on second down and lost another yard on third down, and they had to settle for a field goal that stretched their lead to 13-7. Had Minnifield conceded the touchdown to Reed, had the Cavaliers fallen behind 17-7, that deficit might have proved to be insurmountable.
“Play of the game,” Bennett said of Minnifield’s tackle.
Like Evans, Scott grew up in the Tidewater area and has many friends on the football team, including LoVanté Battle, LaRoy Reynolds, Tim Smith and Superman, who also goes by Perry Jones. Like Evans, Scott could not turn away from the game Saturday night.
“I’m just happy they won,” Scott said.
Virginia Tech’s win over North Carolina on Thursday left UVa with no margin for error two nights later. Had the ‘Hoos lost in Tallahassee, Tech would have clinched the Coastal Division title and assured itself a date with Clemson in the ACC championship game.
That didn’t bother UVa assistant coach Jason Williford, who had been telling anyone who would listen in St. Thomas that London’s team was in an ideal situation.
Williford’s confidence in his alma mater’s football team was rewarded Saturday night. And now it all comes down to the regular-season finale Saturday at Scott Stadium. At 3:30 p.m., the 24th-ranked Cavaliers (5-2, 8-3) host the sixth-ranked Hokies (6-1, 10-1). The winner will represent the Coastal in the ACC championship game Dec. 3 in Charlotte, N.C.
“One more,” Williford said. “All we need is one more.”