By Jeff White
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — At the end of practice Sunday night, Tony Bennett called his players together in the spartan gym of a local high school and reminded them of recent events on the mainland — specifically, UVa’s victories over Florida State in football, Tennessee in women’s basketball and Virginia Tech in NCAA women’s soccer.
“Hopefully we can cap off a great weekend for Virginia sports,” Bennett said before the team headed back to its hotel on this Caribbean island.
UVa’s third-year men’s basketball coach got his wish Monday. It may not qualify as a marquee victory, but the Cavaliers beat Drake 60-52 in the Paradise Jam to end their stay in St. Thomas on a positive note.
“We lost a tough game the first game,” senior guard Sammy Zeglinski said, “but I liked the way we responded the next two games, and we got wins that we needed to get.”
The Wahoos (4-1) are still ruing their subpar play in their Paradise Jam opener. They turned the ball over 19 times and missed 10 free throws Friday night in a 57-55 loss to TCU, which proceeded to lose to Norfolk State on Sunday and to Mississippi on Monday night.
The ‘Hoos went the other direction, bouncing back to beat Drexel 49-35 on Saturday and then dispatching Drake in their Paradise Jam finale. They went 0 for 5 from 3-point range Monday — the first time since Dec. 4, 2005, that the Cavaliers did not make at least one trey in a game — but still shot 52.6 percent from the floor.
“Tough tournament,” Bennett said. “It really is. I wish we would have had the chance to play Marquette [in the championship game]. They’re a heck of a team. But our staff, we were talking about it, Alabama came here [last year] and went 0-3 in this tournament. And in these settings, especially the third game, a lot of crazy stuff happens when you watch these tournaments. Whether it’s poor shooting, turnovers, you see that stuff happen.”
Virginia, which never trailed against Drake (3-2), took the lead for good 69 seconds into the game on a jumper by senior forward Mike Scott (14 points, 9 rebounds). After a first half in which the Bulldogs shot only 26.1 percent, the ‘Hoos led 26-15, and it was 36-20 with 14 minutes remaining.
But then, as Bennett put it, his team “sort of unraveled.” Drake’s best player, 6-8 junior Ben Simons, had gone scoreless in the first half, but his shots began falling in the game’s final 14 minutes, and the Cavaliers began falling apart.
“They kind of picked up their pressure a little bit, and we started rushing and making some bad decisions,” said Virginia swingman Joe Harris, who scored a game-high 18 points.
During one second-half stretch that defied belief, UVa turned the ball over on six consecutive possessions, allowing the Bulldogs to cut their deficit to nine points. When the Cavaliers weren’t giving the ball back to Drake, they ran their offense efficiently, shooting 63.2 percent from the floor after intermission. But their mistakes made the second half more dramatic than it needed to be.
“It was like a thunderstorm in the Virgin Islands in the middle of the afternoon,” Bennett said, “the way the turnovers came in the second half.”
Virginia halted Drake’s comeback, if only momentarily, when freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon passed to sophomore forward Akil Mitchell for a baseline jumper that dropped through as the shot clock expired. That made it 38-27 with 10:28 remaining, and UVa’s offense hummed the rest of the way. But with seemingly every call going against Virginia — 8 minutes and 22 seconds elapsed between Drake’s fifth and sixth fouls in the second half — the Bulldogs were able to draw ever closer.
A three-point play by Simons pulled Drake to 42-36. At the 4:00 mark, it was 48-39, but the Bulldogs’ parade to the foul line continued, and Simons’ two free throws made it 50-46 with 1:54 left.
Virginia refused to wilt. Zeglinski missed the front end of an one-and-one with 1:53 to play, but Scott grabbed the rebound. About 20 seconds later, he scored on a power move inside to push the Cavaliers’ lead to 52-46.
“They were doing whatever they could to try to deny me the ball,” Scott said, “so the best way to get the ball is to go get it off the rim.”
UVa had no turnovers in the last three minutes and went 8 for 8 from the line in the final 42 seconds. Brogdon, Harris, Scott and Zeglinski each hit a pair of free throws during that stretch.
“I’m glad we weathered the storm in that second half,” Bennett said. “We really did, because we got shaky with the ball. We had a good first half. Even at the start of the second half, we got in a little rhythm offensively and started stretching the lead out, and then all of the sudden a couple of those empty possessions we talked about came, and we really got shaky. Maybe in the past we wouldn’t have been able to recover, but I thought after we finally calmed down, we had to break the press, we had to make free throws, we had to try and get stops … To be able to overcome that adversity, I take as a positive.”
Other positives included late-game baskets by Harris, Brogdon, Zeglinski and Scott, as well as the Cavaliers’ accuracy (20 for 23) from the line.
“A lot of our turnovers were unforced,” Zeglinski said, “and I think we got a little lackadaisical with the ball, but we righted the ship at the end and we made some big plays down the stretch.”
To better deal with Drake’s pressure, Bennett went with four perimeter players (Brogdon, Harris, Zeglinski and Jontel Evans) late in the game, along with the 6-8 Scott.
“I just thought we needed a little more ballhandling,” Bennett said. “There was a point where I said, ‘They gotta finish it out. They gotta toughen up, finish it out and fight the fatigue.’ “
For a first-year player — or a veteran, for that matter — the 6-5 Brogdon showed remarkable poise. With UVa’s lead down to four points, he went to the line for a one-and-one and coolly sank both shots with 42.4 seconds left.
He’s aware of the score in such situations, Brogdon said, “but as soon as I realize it, I block it out and say, ‘This is just practice. Hit your free throws and get back on defense.’ “
In a game in which Virginia’s starting shooting guard, sophomore KT Harrell, struggled in 13 scoreless minutes, Brogdon made a significant contribution. He finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and only 1 turnover.
“You gotta have that composure with great alertness,” Bennett said. “You can’t be so composed that you’re half asleep out there, but you gotta be composed and still be alert, and I thought Malcolm did a nice job of that. That’s a different experience for a freshman to be in.”
For the Cavaliers, who fly home Tuesday, the trip to St. Thomas was a valuable experience. “We definitely wanted a chance at Marquette,” Zeglinski said, and the team is not happy about squandering that opportunity. But the players believe they emerged from the Paradise Jam a tougher team.
“We fought through some adversity,” Scott said. “We learned from our loss versus TCU. Versus Drexel and versus Drake tonight we just learned not to yield.”
Harris said: “It was good, and not just on the court playing against good competition and finishing on a good note. Even off the court, some of the stuff that we’ve done, I think it’s really good for our team chemistry. I feel like we’re all getting closer as a group.”
Next up for Virginia is the first of four consecutive games at John Paul Jones Arena. At 7 p.m. Friday, UVa hosts Green Bay, Bennett’s alma mater. The Phoenix (2-3) lost 57-56 to unbeaten Indiana State on Monday night.
Zeglinski missed UVa’s first two games this season while recovering from a sprained right ankle, which he re-injured in the second half against TCU. He gritted his way through the rest of the tournament, but he’s thrilled that Virginia doesn’t play again until Friday night.
“I’m looking forward to having a couple days off and just trying to get the swelling to go down a little bit,” Zeglinski said, “and hopefully by Friday I should be closer to 100 percent.”