By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The 13th annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge in men’s basketball ended Wednesday night, and to say it did not go well for the Atlantic Coast Conference would be an understatement.
ACC teams went 4-8 against their Big Ten counterparts to drop the Challenge for the third straight year. The ACC winners were Wake Forest (over Nebraska), No. 5 North Carolina (over No. 9 Wisconsin), Clemson (over Iowa) and Virginia (over No. 14 Michigan).
UVa’s game was Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. When his schedule permitted, third-year coach Tony Bennett said, he watched “bits and pieces” of other Challenge games Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I know I’m going to sound like I’m making excuses,” Bennett said Thursday at JPJ, “but so much is [about match-ups and where games are played].”
The Challenge is “a big deal,” Bennett said, “and you want to win it. But I don’t know that you can say that means the Big Ten is clearly better than the ACC, or the ACC was better than the Big Ten in years past. The Big Ten won it, I take my hat off to them, and I’m glad we protected our home court.”
The Cavaliers (6-1) are halfway through a four-game homestand. Virginia returns to JPJ on Saturday for a 1 p.m. game against Longwood, which will have to battle fatigue as well as an ACC opponent.
The Lancers (2-5) host South Carolina State at 7 p.m. Friday in Farmville. UVa, coincidentally, opened the season with a 75-38 romp over South Carolina State in Charlottesville.
Sophomores Joe Harris and KT Harrell scored 13 points apiece to lead the Wahoos that night. Harris, a 6-6 swingman, has continued to play well since the opener, and he’s second on the team in scoring (12.6 ppg) behind senior forward Mike Scott (15.3). But consistency continues to elude Harrell, a 6-4 shooting guard from Montgomery, Ala.
He moved from the starting lineup to the bench after a rough three-game stretch in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Virginia went 2-1 at the Paradise Jam tournament. Harrell regained his form in his first game back on the mainland, scoring 14 points in UVa’s rout of Green Bay at JPJ, but then went 0 for 4 from the floor and failed to score in a season-low 10 minutes versus Michigan.
Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, meanwhile, sparkled off the bench against the Wolverines, totaling a season-high 16 points and 5 rebounds in 24 minutes.
Against Longwood, Virginia is likely to again start junior Jontel Evans at point guard, fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski at shooting guard and Harris at small forward. But Bennett said he hasn’t lost faith in Harrell, who started 15 games in 2010-11.
“I always say, we got three perimeter spots, and we’re playing five guys,” Bennett said. “Different nights it’s going to be different guys.
“For someone like KT, who’s a very solid player, who’s helped us in games, he’s going to help us. There’s going to be nights when someone’s off, and he’s going to be on. Sometimes it’s match-ups. But absolutely these guys are all going to get their chances. Not having a ton of depth on the perimeter, with Paul [Jesperson] redshirting, those guys all gotta be ready. But KT is a team guy, and he was excited for the team win [against Michigan], and he’s going to be there for us.”
The Lancers, 0-5 against Virginia, start four seniors, including their best player — 6-6, 225-pound center Antwan Carter (16.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg).
“Veteran team,” Bennett said. “They actually have some pretty good individual one-on-one players with solid athleticism. They’re going to come in here playing hard, and we’ve got to be ready. Any teams that are experienced, that have seniors that have played in a lot of games, that have some guys that can score, you always have to be aware of. So it’s really about us being as ready as we can and competing as hard as we can and continuing to execute and not taking a step backwards.”
A season ago, Virginia lost at home to Seattle. Also in 2010-11, the ‘Hoos needed a last-second basket by center Assane Sene to edge Norfolk State at JPJ.
Bennett said he hadn’t mentioned those games to his players. He’s confident he doesn’t need to.
“I don’t think they’re thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy,’ ” Bennett said. “There’s been too many times with these guys where it’s been a battle, and that’s just the way college basketball is.
“You just watch college basketball and you see there’s not a huge gap between some of these teams. So you just gotta be ready every possession, and it’s not always like a knockout punch with teams. You just gotta keep playing, and hopefully you can put some distance between yourselves [and the opponent]. I think our guys are experienced enough to come back from a solid performance and know that they gotta keep putting their nose to the grindstone.”
Virginia hosts George Mason at 7 p.m. Tuesday, then breaks for final exams. After the GMU game, UVa won’t play at home again until Dec. 27, when Maryland-Eastern Shore visits JPJ. The ‘Hoos play at Oregon on Dec. 18 and at Seattle three nights later.