By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For UVa athletics, the main event is today at Scott Stadium, where the battle for the Commonwealth Cup will be waged. The preliminaries included a men’s basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena, and the home fans, many of whom will be back on Grounds today to see Virginia take on Virginia Tech in football, left in good spirits Friday night.
A crowd of 9,113 saw UVa dominate almost from start to finish at JPJ in a 68-42 rout of Green Bay, the school at which Tony Bennett made his name as a sharp-shooting left-handed point guard.
Bennett, of course, is now in his third season as the Cavaliers’ head coach. As a Wisconsin assistant, he faced his alma mater more than once, but this was his first game against the Phoenix as a head coach.
As he watched the visiting players warm up before the game, Bennett said, he flashed back 20-some years to the days when he wore that uniform and played for his father, Dick Bennett, at Green Bay.
“I just kind of said, ‘I remember when I was out there warming up for that, and look where I am now,’ ” Bennett told reporters. “I got a feeling of being grateful and thankful for the path that I’ve been on.”
With a date with 15th-ranked Michigan (5-1) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge next for Virginia (5-1), Bennett’s biggest concern might be the tender right ankle of Sammy Zeglinski. The fifth-year senior guard missed the the Wahoos’ first two games while recovering from a sprained ankle, then reinjured it at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands last weekend.
Some much-needed rest back in Charlottesville got Zeglinski closer to full strength, and he started at shooting guard against Green Bay in place of sophomore KT Harrell. But with about 12 minutes remaining Friday night, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell landed on Zeglinski’s right foot. The oft-injured Zeglinski limped to the bench and watched the final minutes with an ice pack on his ankle.
“It’s definitely disheartening, but I’m not one to feel sorry for himself,” he said. “I have a great trainer in Ethan [Saliba], and he’s helped me get back.”
X-rays of the ankle were negative, and Zeglinski said emphatically that he plans to play against the Wolverines on Tuesday night at JPJ.
“Without a doubt,” Zeglinski said.
The Phoenix (2-4) opened the scoring Friday night on a 3-pointer by guard Steve Baker, but Virginia answered with a 14-0 run. With 8 minutes left in the first half, the ‘Hoos led 27-7. Green Bay closed to 33-23 by the break, but UVa opened the second half with a 10-0 run that featured two slick post moves by senior center Assane Sene, and that was that.
The crowd’s loudest cheers Friday night were for UVa football coach Mike London and his players, who came on the court to a standing ovation at the first media timeout. Before turning his attention to his team, Bennett nodded and waved to London, and Bennett’s players got caught up in the excitement, too.
“How can you not notice the crowd [roaring]?” Mike Scott said.
Scott, a 6-8 senior, led Virginia with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Harrell had a season-high 14 points. After struggling on the offensive end at the Paradise Jam, the ‘Hoos looked significantly better with the ball against Green Bay.
“I think we got some good looks, and that work you did with Assane paid off, with those spinning moves and all that stuff,” Bennett, smiling, told radio analyst Ted Jeffries, a former UVa center, during the postgame press conference.
“But no, we got some second-chance points, guys found their rhythm, got to the paint and did a decent job certainly in stretches.”
The Cavaliers’ defense has been stellar most of the season, and that was the case again Friday night. Green Bay shot only 30 percent from the floor.
“We were playing great defense, and we were being patient on offense, so we were getting the shots we wanted, and they were going in,” Virginia point guard Jontel Evans said.
The game marked the UVa debut of 6-8 freshman Darion Atkins, the team’s most athletic player. Atkins, a graduate of Landon School in Bethesda, Md., delighted the crowd by soaring to slam home a miss by redshirt freshman James Johnson with 2:05 left.
“That dunk was pretty nice,” Zeglinski said. “He’s so athletic and so long, and around the rim he’s really active, as you saw by that dunk tonight.”
Mitchell, who had capped a fast break with an emphatic dunk of his own earlier in the half, said Atkins “came back in the locker room [after the game] and he was the most excited I’ve ever seen him. That was crazy. I hope that’s on ESPN’s top 10 plays. That was great. He was up there for a while. It was a lot better than mine.”
The first big man off the bench for UVa, as he’s been all season, was Mitchell, who contributed 8 points and 5 rebounds in 19 minutes. Next was Atkins, who totaled 2 points, 3 rebounds and 1 steal in 13 minutes.
“I thought he did some good things,” Bennett said. “He’s real quick. You can see that. The youth of our first-years shows at times — Malcolm [Brogdon], James and certainly Darion at times — where I gotta remind myself, ‘All right, this is new to them. They gotta get used to it.’ But for Darion’s first minutes, he showed you in that dunk glimpses of his athleticism and his ability to block some shots, get some offensive rebounds … That’s a good start.”
Also encouraging for UVa was the play of Harrell, who in three games at the Paradise Jam was 0 for 4 on 3-pointers and 2 for 12 from the floor overall. Against Green Bay, he made 5 of 8 from the floor, including 1 of 2 from beyond the arc.
“I’m not the type of person that’s going to get sad or down about what’s going on,” Harrell said. “Obstacles are going to come your way; you just gotta fight through them.”
Talking with his father, who was at the game, helped Harrell. So did a meeting with Bennett.
“I just told Coach basically that I’ve just got to play with that passion and fire that I used to play with,” Harrell said. “I think these last couple games I haven’t really been talkative, I’ve been playing sort of sluggish. But I want to change that. I want to play with a lot more passion and fire.”
When Zeglinski is healthy, he’s one of Bennett’s five options for the three perimeter positions, along with Evans, Brogdon, Harrell and sophomore Joe Harris.
“They’re all going to have their opportunities,” Bennett said. “Some nights it’s going to be KT; some nights it’s going to be someone else. And it’s just [about having] the ability to play and be ready when you’re called up.”
A full complement of players would boost the Cavaliers’ chances Tuesday night against the Wolverines, who placed third at the rugged Maui Invitational.
“They’re one of the best teams in the country, it appears,” Bennett said. “They can hurt you in a lot of different ways. Again, we’ve got to be ready to play. I told our guys it’s about playing possession by possession. You gotta be so good defensively. How we’re trying to play is a way that can hold up and [work] against real good teams. Certainly we need to be healthy, you’ll need to play at a high level, but our system is geared to play against good teams, and we’re going to give everything we’ve got.”
Zeglinski said: “The level of competition is going to step up, and I think we’re ready for it. We just gotta stay true to who we are, be sound with the basketball. We know it’s going to be a fight, and we’re ready for it.”