By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the Maui Invitational, Michigan scored 73 points against Memphis, 75 against Duke and 79 against UCLA, and John Beilein’s basketball team beat two of those perennial powers.
In the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the 14th-ranked Wolverines connected on two bombs in the final minute Tuesday night and still didn’t reach 60.
“They haven’t seen a defense like ours,” forward Mike Scott said after UVa’s 70-58 win at John Paul Jones Arena. “That’s no disrespect to the teams in Maui, but we watched film, and they didn’t go against a defense like ours.”
Beilein, who had a successful run as coach at the University of Richmond, saluted his counterpart, Tony Bennett, when asked about the Cavaliers’ defense.
“It’s always going to be good as long as that man is coaching this team,” Beilein said. “They do a tremendous job. I’m not crazy about scoring 58 points, but not a lot of teams may score 58 points against them. Thank goodness we made some 3s to be able to do that. They’re tough to get easy baskets against, and when you get them, you can’t miss them and we had several of those in the game.”
Suffocating defense has become a trademark of this UVa team, which in seven games has yet to allow an opponent to score 60 points. Offensive efficiency, however, has often eluded the Wahoos (6-1), and so it was again for much of the first half Tuesday night.
After 16 minutes, Virginia had only 12 points. But the Wolverines (5-2) had only 17, and their best player, 6-6 guard Tim Hardaway Jr., was on the bench with two fouls. Late in the first half, shots finally started to drop for UVa, as Bennett’s players were confident they would. The Cavaliers led 24-23 midway and then really heated up after the break.
“We’re getting all the shots we want this season,” Scott said, “just sometimes they won’t fall. Tonight they fell.”
As a team, Virginia had twice as many assists (16) as turnovers (8), a statistic that delighted its third-year coach. Four players scored in double figures for UVa, led by Scott and sophomore swingman Joe Harris with 18 points apiece. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon contributed a career-high 16 points and uncanny poise off the bench, and senior guard Sammy Zeglinski, playing on a sore right ankle, added 11 points, 6 assists and only 1 turnover.
“We were getting pretty good looks. We just didn’t knock ’em down,” Zeglinski said. “But we knew if we stuck to our defensive principles and kept wearing [Michigan] down, shots would eventually fall, and that’s exactly what happened in the second half.”
With 13:20 left, Hardaway’s first basket of the game, a 3-pointer, put Michigan up 39-34. But Harris answered with a runner in the lane to start a 19-2 run that ended with his 3-pointer from the left wing. In between Harris’ field goals, Virginia got two treys from Brogdon and six points from Scott, who posted up Hardaway for the go-ahead basket at the 9:52 mark.
“They were stretching us out defensively with their four-guard lineup,” Bennett told reporters afterward, “so we said, ‘OK, we’re going to have to guard them that way, but they’re going to have to guard us inside,’ and we tried to really get Mike touches.”
Scott, a 6-8, 237-pound fifth-year senior who missed most of last season with an ankle injury, reminded everyone in the arena of his enormous value to the ‘Hoos. In addition to his 18 points (on 6-for-11 shooting), Scott grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds and had 3 assists. And he did it with many of the most distinguished big men in UVa history looking on — Norman Nolan, Travis Watson, Jim Miller, Kenton Edelin, Ted Jeffries and, best of all, Ralph Sampson, who was recognized at halftime for his recent induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Everyone was here tonight,” Scott said. “I’m just glad we got that win in front of them.”
Michigan was the highest-ranked non-conference opponent to play at JPJ since No. 10 Arizona on Nov. 12, 2006.
“It’s a little different than football,” Bennett said. “One game doesn’t make a season, but it was an opportunity, a great barometer for us. Where are we at? We’re playing a team that is good. You watched them in Maui, and they played well against some good teams, so we needed to see where we were at.”
Bennett’s message to his players at practice Monday: Want to win the game more than you fear losing it. “And then before the game I said, ‘It’s one thing to want it. You gotta play to win this one. Play it to win.’ “
During the game, Bennett challenged his team to play with humility and passion. “I kept repeating that,” he said, “and that was our little chant when we came in, and I think that’s always going to be the key for our team: understanding how we have to play to be successful, and then having the passion and heart to carry it off.”
Scott said: “I think we played with so much passion on the defensive end, and we knew who we were on offense.”
Harris is not known as a lock-down defender, but he helped the ‘Hoos hold Hardaway Jr., whose famous father was in the building as an NBA scout, to a season-low 5 points.
“He’s gotten a lot better defensively, Joe has,” Bennett said, “and again, our guys understood, ‘All right, I’m helping you, Joe. You gotta take care of your alley, but if he gets outside of that, I’m there to shut him down.’ I thought there was good team defense, but the individual defense Joe did, I’m not saying I was surprised, but I was happy with it and pleased, because that was a concern coming into this game, that match-up.”
Harris did a little bit of everything Tuesday night. He hit three 3-pointers, converted a traditional three-point play, pulled down a season-high 7 rebounds and matched his career high with 4 steals.
UVa fans have come to expect such performances from Harris, who started 25 games as a freshman last season. Those fans are starting to realize that Brogdon could be special, too, something those around the program have known since he committed to Virginia before his senior year at Greater Atlanta Christian School.
“He’s a complete player, and he’s mature beyond his years,” Bennett said, “and it was good to see him give us a lift.”
The 6-5, 215-pound Brogdon, who plays both guard spots, came in averaging 5.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in about 22 minutes per game. “I talked to him yesterday,” Bennett recalled Tuesday night, “and I said, ‘Malcolm, you’re doing some good things,’ but I said, ‘There’s more in there. We haven’t seen your best basketball.’ “
Brogdon offered another glimpse Tuesday night, hitting a career-high three 3-pointers, grabbing 5 rebounds and twice posting up for baskets. If facing a ranked opponent in a nationally televised game fazed No. 22, it wasn’t evident.
“He’s just a big-time time player,” Zeglinski said. “He steps up, and he’s not afraid of the moment.”
To wit: After Michigan responded to UVa’s 19-2 run with five straight points to pull to 53-46, the ball came to Brogdon, who launched a 3-point attempt from the right corner. It missed, but senior center Assane Sene corraled the offensive rebound and passed back out to Brogdon, who didn’t hesitate. This 3-pointer dropped through, and then Harris hit from outside the arc, and suddenly it was 59-46.
“It was interesting when Malcolm shot that one and missed and it went right back to him,” Bennett said. “If you asked me, ‘Are you glad he shot that?’ Well, I am now, but I wasn’t sure at the time. It was kind of like, ‘Should he? Shouldn’t he?’ But I thought he, being a freshman in this setting, really showed some composure.”
Brogdon smiled when asked about his final 3-pointer.
“I felt like Coach Bennett was going to be mad if I missed the shot, because it wasn’t particularly a good shot,” Brogdon said. “But it just went in.”