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By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — If it could have one game back in this young season, the UVa men’s basketball team would love to play TCU again. The Cavaliers’ misstep against the Horned Frogs in the U.S. Virgin Islands last month cost them an opportunity to meet Marquette, which has climbed to No. 11 in the national rankings.

Overall, though, the Wahoos like their position as they head into final exams, and for good reason. Virginia improved to 8-1 — its best start since 2004-05 — with a 68-48 thumping of George Mason at John Paul Jones Arena on Tuesday night.

“I think we’re solid,” third-year coach Tony Bennett said. “We’re going to have to keep getting better, but I think we’ve progressed from our first couple games and made some improvements, but know that more need to come.

“But I like [the players’] spirit, and I like their heart, because they’re starting to understand, or we’re starting to understand as a group, that it’s [about] the ability to outlast [an opponent]. You might go through some tough stretches, but if they keep on defending and keep taking care of the ball, they’re going to find themselves in a lot of games, and hopefully be on the right side.”

UVa has yet to allow more than 58 points in a game this season, and its opponents are shooting 36.6 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from 3-point range. Mason (6-3), which returned the nucleus of an NCAA tournament team, came in averaging 72.5 points in its first season under former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. The Patriots’ lineup is stocked with talented players, but none scored more than 9 points against the Cavaliers.

“This year we definitely took a gigantic step in Coach Bennett’s system,” said senior guard Sammy Zeglinski, who had a season-high 4 steals. “We really value getting stops and making people work for shots.”

Junior point guard Jontel Evans said: “Guys are just buying in. They see that our defense is working, and they’re just committed to playing it, and everybody knows that’s our bread and butter, and that’s our chance to win in big games.”

When Bennett came to Virginia from Washington State, he installed the defense that had been the trademark of his father’s teams at several schools: the Pack Line. It’s a man-to-man defense designed to clog the middle, protect the paint and prevent dribble-penetration by guards.

It’s not easy to master, as Bennett’s players will attest. In 2009-10, the Cavaliers ranked last among ACC teams in both field-goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense. Bennett’s second team fared a little better in both areas — Virginia ranked ninth in the ACC in field-goal defense and 10th in 3-point defense last season — but still fell well short of his standards.

“It takes time,” Evans said. “My first year I kind of struggled with it, second year too. Now it’s kind of easy, but when you first get introduced to it, it’s kind of difficult.”

An efficient offense also contributed heavily to UVa’s 22nd consecutive victory over Colonial Athletic Association competition. (Virginia beat Drexel at the Paradise Jam last month.) The ‘Hoos shot 60.5 percent from the floor Tuesday night, with Zeglinski making 6 of 11 shots, Evans 5 of 7, sophomore swingman Joe Harris 5 of 6, and senior forward Mike Scott 3 of 3.

From beyond the arc, Virginia was 7 for 14, with Zeglinski (4 for 6) leading the barrage. With the Patriots collapsing on Scott in the low post, his teammates had room to operate on the perimeter, and they produced their best 3-point-shooting performance of the season.

“We really work on trying to get room-and-rhythm looks,” Harris said. “In the Virgin Islands, we talked a lot about how we were taking too many contested shots, so we’ve really been focusing on not taking that initial shot, especially if it’s going to be contested, and working the offense, because it’s really difficult for teams to play defense the whole shot clock, and you usually end up getting something good at the end of the shot clock anyway.”

Zeglinski, nearly fully recovered from the ankle injury that slowed him early in the season, led Virginia with 18 points. During one memorable first-half stretch, he hit two 3-pointers, blocked a shot and scored on a slick drive.

“He was real active,” Bennett said. “Sammy’s starting to move better. He was very clever with the ball, he looked quick, and his experience showed … And I thought he made for the most part good decisions and then was in the right positions defensively. That was important for us. He got us off to a great start.”

Zeglinski’s third trey pushed Virginia’s lead to 32-15 with 4:51 left in the first half. That turned out to be the Cavaliers’ final field goal before intermission, but Mason failed to capitalize, and the halftime score was 33-22.

Evans took over in the final 20 minutes. After a sloppy first half in which he turned the ball over four times, he totaled 7 points, 2 assists and 2 steals the rest of the way. Bennett, a former point guard, singled out Evans in the postgame press conference.

“He had no turnovers in the second half, got to the lane, made good decisions and really locked in and guarded defensively,” Bennett said. “And that’s a sign of maturity for Jontel, to be able to shrug off maybe a bad stretch or where it got a little shaky, and he responded. And I thought that was big for us.”

Evans split two defenders and dropped in a floater from the lane to make it 56-41 with 6:45 left. He hit another floater with 1:54 left.

He had that shot in his repertoire early in his college career, Evans said, “but I just wasn’t confident with it. I couldn’t knock it down consistently.”

Countless hours in the gym are paying dividends for the former Bethel High star, who shot 36.9 percent from the floor as a freshman and 39 percent as a sophomore. Evans is up to 55 percent this season, largely because of his ability to convert floaters and finish other shots around the basket.

“I’ve put up a million of them,” he said. “It feels comfortable out there. I feel like I’m very confident that I can make that shot 10 out of 10 times.”

The Cavaliers don’t need Evans (6.4 ppg) to be a big scorer. Players such as Scott, Harris, Zeglinski and freshman Malcolm Brogdon are more than capable of hitting double figures.

“I just want him to make those good decisions, and that’s why I was proud of him in the second half,” Bennett said. “I thought the first half a couple times he maybe held it one dribble and was trying to throw it back across his body or to the lane, which was tough.

“When Jontel, because he’s so quick, when he can get to the paint, usually they collapse, and if he can kick it out or we got guys ready, that’s a great situation. But what I liked is that [GMU] stayed tight on those guys and he didn’t pick up a charge. He stopped and used his touch, and he worked very hard in the offseason on that. All of our guys tried to work hard on finishing. So when he gives us buckets like that, that’s great. When people decide they want to stay off of him or play off of him, that’s nice when we can make ’em pay.”

The Cavaliers don’t play again until Dec. 18, when they visit Oregon. Bennett said his team has plenty to work on during the exam break. Virginia made only 9 of 17 free throws Tuesday night and had several defensive lapses that Mason exploited.

“The defense never rests,” Bennett said. “I’ve said that before. Just because you’ve done it a few times, you can’t assume that it will always be there. It’s kind of a renewed effort every night you play. You gotta say, ‘All right, we’re going to work against the ball, we’re going to make teams play against a set defense, and then we’re going to get great looks on the other end.’ “

The ‘Hoos have won six straight since falling 57-55 to TCU at the Paradise Jam, a tournament that Marquette went on to win. (The Horned Frogs are 7-2 after beating Texas Tech on Tuesday night.)

“We still look back at that TCU game, and we wish we had the chance to play Marquette, but there’s nothing we can do about it now,” Zeglinski said. “I think we like where we’re at as a team now. The cohesion is pretty good, and it’s only going to improve as we go forward.”

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