By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As they watched the Vanderbilt-Louisville men’s basketball game on television Friday night, UVa sophomore Joe Harris got an earful from his roommates: senior guard Sammy Zeglinski and head manager Thomas Tudor.
“We were getting all over him,” Zeglinski recalled Saturday afternoon. “We were going, ‘When are you going to get a dunk?’ He can jump really well. I don’t know why he hadn’t.”
Harris’ breakthrough as a Cavalier came with 16:23 to play Saturday against Longwood at John Paul Jones Arena. After Zeglinski ran down a loose ball in the corner, he spotted Harris alone near the basket. The 6-6 swingman caught Zeglinski’s pass, leaped and threw down a two-handed slam.
“I was up high enough,” Harris said, “and I just figured, why not?”
He wasn’t through. About two minutes later, Harris caught a pass on the left wing and drove into the lane. When no Lancers bothered to impede his progress, Harris continued to the basket and soared for another emphatic two-handed dunk. On the UVa bench, nobody appreciated Harris’ aerial act more than Mike Curtis, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach.
“I joked with Coach Curtis and Joe,” Tony Bennett said after his team’s 86-53 romp.
“I told Joe, ‘You owe Mike some money for allowing you to be able to thunder dunk like that in that game.’ I saw the guys [on the bench] kind of smiling when he did it. But Joe does have a bounce to him and a liveliness that people might not think. We talked about that when he first came in. He’s not just your typical zone-buster, a guy that can knock down shots. He’s lively and he rebounds and has some spring, some quick-twitch fibers in there, and I think he showed that, so that was good to see.”
In a non-conference game whose final 27 minutes lacked any semblance of suspense, Harris’ dunks — as well as second-half slams by teammates Assane Sene and Darion Atkins — elicited the loudest cheers from the crowd of 8,352 as the Wahoos improved to 7-1, their best start since 2004-05.
The game was the Cavaliers’ first since Tuesday night, when they beat No. 14 Michigan 70-58 in a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game at JPJ.
The Lancers are “not ranked,” Bennett said, “but it was going to be a good test for us to see if we would still have the alertness and the sharpness that was needed.”
Longwood, playing its second game in 18 hours, pulled to 20-17 with seven straight points in the first half. But UVa forward Mike Scott scored six of his game-high 20 points in the 8-0 run that followed, and the biggest question after that was how much Bennett would use his bench.
His reserves played plenty. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon logged 20 minutes and totaled 6 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Sophomore guard KT Harrell scored 5 points, and sophomore forward Akil Mitchell grabbed a career-high 9 rebounds. Harrell and Mitchell each played 16 minutes. Atkins, a 6-8 forward, contributed 8 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 2 steals — all season highs — in 13 minutes.
“The guys got valuable minutes, I think, and I really challenged them,” Bennett said. “There’s a point where the score probably isn’t as important. It’s the quality on the floor and how they’re going to approach it and play. You always want to get them more [time], but there were some opportunities for those guys, and that’s important for them.
“I told them, ‘I watch every practice tape, I watch every possession, and I’m judging, I’m evaluating.’ I’m looking for ways to help them improve, and I tell them that. So it’s your decision when you’re out there to do with it what you want, and if I see you acting like it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t bode well for you and our development as a team.
Atkins said: “Whatever time I get, I want to take that opportunity to come out and produce and show Coach Bennett what I’m all about.”
Bennett liked what he saw from Atkins, a superior athlete who has a 7-1 wingspan and exceptional timing as a shot-blocker.
“He has a quickness that’s unique for a guy his size,” Bennett said, “and I think that will be able to be used for our team … Sometimes teams have 4-men” — power forwards — “that can stretch you and shoot, and you want your 4 to be able to cover inside and outside. I think you can see that he’s got the anticipation and quickness to help us certainly on the defensive end right now. It’s just learning it.”
The Lancers (3-6) never led. The 6-8 Scott, who was 6 for 6 from the floor (and 7 for 8 from the line) opened the scoring with his second 3-pointer of the season, and six minutes in it was 14-2. The Cavaliers generally could get whatever they wanted on the perimeter against Longwood’s defense, for better or, in some cases, worse.
“It was like fool’s gold,” Zeglinski said. “They kept going under screens, and they were just giving us 3s. But in the second half we made the adjustment to try to attack more.”
Early in the game, Bennett said, “I thought we were a little uncertain. Should we shoot it? Should we wait on it? And I thought we, as the game wore on offensively, caught our stride. Defensively, there were some holes, but the guys played pretty hard for the most part.”
Zeglinski made four treys and scored 14 points, both season highs. His 7 assists and 3 steals also were season highs. Harris was 0 for 4 from beyond the arc but finished with 13 points.
“Coach gave us that list at the end of the [2010-11] season with things that we needed to work on,” Harris recalled after the Michigan game, “and on my list it had being able to get in the lane and finish, hitting floaters and just finishing at the basket. So it was something I really focused on in the offseason.”
Scott matched his career high with 4 assists and also had 9 rebounds. For the ‘Hoos, only Zeglinski (28) played more than 24 minutes. Before breaking for final exams, Virginia has one more game — Tuesday night against George Mason at JPJ — and Bennett wants his players as rested as possible for what figures to be a difficult test.
The Patriots, who advanced to the NCAA tournament last season, took a 5-2 record into their game with winless Towson on Saturday night.
“They’re good,” Bennett said. “Obviously there’s a lot of experience coming back. It’s a tournament-tested team, and they have probably the best interior players we’ll have faced this year up to this point … They’ll be ready, and we’re going to have to be ready, but it’s another great opportunity for us.”
Zeglinski said: “It’s going to be a good challenge for us. It’s gonna be good to have a long break, but we gotta lock in and get this last win.”