By Jeff White
SEATTLE — Long after the game ended Wednesday night, UVa basketball players lingered at KeyArena, shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for photographs with orange-clad fans, many of whom had made the three-hour drive to the big city from Chelan, Wash., the small town that sophomore swingman Joe Harris calls home.
The atmosphere was upbeat and light-hearted. The game’s final minutes had been considerably more tense for a Virginia team that entered The Associated Press’ Top 25 on Monday.
After taking on a 63-49 lead on two free throws by senior forward Mike Scott with 8:45 left, the 24th-ranked Cavaliers unraveled against Seattle’s full-court pressure, turning the ball over at an alarming rate.
“I feel like we panicked a little bit,” Virginia freshman Malcolm Brogdon said, “and we could have been more sure with the ball.”
Never mind that the Redhawks came in with a 2-7 record. They remembered winning at John Paul Jones Arena last season, and they showed no fear in the rematch. Forward Aaron Broussard and guard Sterling Carter, Seattle’s stars in Charlottesville last Dec. 22, dazzled again Wednesday night, and with 3:25 left Virginia found itself trailing 68-67.
“Those kids played with great passion, Seattle University, and they almost pulled one out,” said Tony Bennett, UVa’s third-year coach.
In the end, though, the Wahoos survived, making just enough plays to escape with an 83-77 victory in the second and final game of their nearly weeklong visit to the Pacific Northwest. And they’ll fly home Thursday with a 10-1 record, their best start since the 2000-01 season.
“Seattle probably played harder than us tonight, which is discouraging,” UVa guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “But at the same time I think we stuck together in the last two minutes of the game, when maybe last year we would have [splintered]. The difference this year with this team is the leadership, and just the unity is on a whole different level.”
The story of this game for the Cavaliers was the magnificant play of Scott, a 6-8, 237-pound fifth-year senior who finished with a career-high 33 points and 14 rebounds. His previous high was 27 points.
“He was in the zone,” Bennett said. “He really was. His touch was great. He has that versatility to go back to the basket, face you up, and he had his touch, and he made some nice passes, and again, that kept us in the game, and that was an impressive offensive performance.”
It was UVa’s other fifth-year senior, however, who had the night’s most memorable basket.
After Broussard scored in the post to make it 68-67, silencing the large turnout of UVa fans in the crowd of 3,541, Seattle coach Cameron Dollar called a timeout with 3:25 left. When play resumed, the unflappable Brogdon broke the Redhawks’ full-court pressure and passed ahead to Zeglinski in transition.
From the left wing, directly in front of the Cavaliers’ bench, Zeglinski didn’t hesitate. He pulled up and launched a shot. The ball dropped through the net to make it 70-68, and UVa never trailed again.
“Am I OK with it?” Bennett said with a broad smile when asked about Zeglinski’s shot selection. “I’m great with it, because it went in. How’s that for you?”
Scott, who followed the flight of the ball from his position near the basket, said: “I didn’t hold my breath at all. When Sammy gets an open rhythm shot like that, it’s going in, and it went in.”
Twenty-nine seconds later, at the 2:47 mark, Zeglinski made two free throws to push Virginia’s lead to 72-68. Overall, the ‘Hoos were 11 of 14 from the line in the final three minutes, led by Brogdon, who coolly hit all six of his attempts.
“Tonight I really focused on not paying attention to the score and just getting up there,” he said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘This is practice. This is practice. You do this every day. Just relax and knock them down.’ “
In 18 minutes off the bench, the 6-5 Brogdon had 10 points, 3 assists and only 1 turnover. He was 8 for 9 from the line.
“That was impressive, that he made those free throws,” Bennett said. “But what I was equally impressed with in Malcolm’s case was, he was one of our primary ballhandlers. He got open against the press, he broke the double team. [The ball] just ended up getting in his hands. They were taking it away from some other guys, but he went and got it and usually made the right decisions. And his composure at drawing the fouls, getting the ball, finding the open guys, that was beyond a freshman out there. So I applauded that.
“Now, he wasn’t ready when he came in the game. He was too nonchalant … But he has a knack. Late in the game you like him, because he can step to the line and make shots, he’s strong, he made some good defensive plays. This is a new experience for him, and down the stretch, the way he handled that pressure was good.”
Bennett’s comments came after his team’s worst defensive performance of the season. Until Wednesday night, no opponent had scored more than 58 points against UVa. The Redhawks had 59 with 5:49 to play.
A year ago in Charlottesville, Broussard and Carter had combined for 34 points in Seattle’s upset of UVa. This time they combined for 46. Broussard, a 6-5 senior, finished with a career-high 29 points and also had 8 rebounds and 2 steals.
“He’s a match-up problem for us,” Bennett said. “We prepared, we showed tape, we knew the deal. Similar to Mike in a way, he’ll take you outside, he’ll take you inside, he’s pretty crafty off the dribble. He had his way with us, and that was discouraging. But again, sometimes you get in these games and you say, ‘We’ll take it, we’ll grow from it,’ and that was one of those.”
Carter, a 6-0 sophomore, made four 3-pointers. On what could have been his fifth, Carter caught a pass on the right wing and immediately went into his shooting motion. The 6-1 Zeglinski timed his jump perfectly and deflected the ball. It ended up in the hands of Scott, who was fouled and made two free throws with 6.4 seconds left to close out the scoring.
“I knew they were going to try to get a shot for Carter,” Zeglinski said. “He had the hot hand, and he has a kind of weird release. I just tried to get my hand on it. I was just fortunate to get a piece of it.”
Zeglinski finished with 11 points, and Harris, playing in front of about 300 friends and relatives, contributed 14. Harris’ baskets included a dunk, a 3-pointer and a baseline floater that put Virginia up 44-43 with 15:12 left.
“All my aunts and uncles were there, all three of my sisters, my parents, all my friends, most of my community was there,” Harris said. “I had a pretty close-knit core of friends [in Chelan], and they were all there. They have never been able to see me play in person [for UVa] before, so that was pretty cool.”
And the postgame scene?
“That was wild,” Harris said. “So many people were down there.”
Later that night, at the team hotel, junior point guard Jontel Evans spotted Harris. “Hometown hero!” a smiling Evans called out.
For Scott, his tour de force against Seattle capped a week he won’t soon forget. On Monday, he was named ACC player of the week. More important, Scott, who’s from Chesapeake, learned he had met the requirements for his bachelor’s in anthropology.
“That’s beyond basketball or anything,” Scott said Wednesday night. “That’s the main reason why I came to UVa, to get a degree.”
Scott may well leave college with All-ACC honors too. Through 11 games, he’s averaging 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds and shooting 63 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the line.
Against Seattle, Scott had 19 points by halftime, on 9-for-11 shooting. The Cavaliers trailed 38-36, but things could have been worse for them after a half in which the Redhawks shot 57.7 percent from the floor.
“We weren’t ready defensively to start,” Bennett said. “They got easy buckets. They got second-chance points, transition baskets, and they came out after 5, 10 minutes saying, ‘These guys aren’t very good. We can certainly take it to them.’ And without Mike Scott having that monster first half — he was terrific offensively — that thing might have separated to a point that would have been extremely difficult to get back in it.”
Scott said: “Offensively, I think I was just playing with a lot of confidence. My teammates were getting me the ball, and I actually finished around the rim, finished some shots finally, for once.”
Nearly a week has passed since the team left Charlottesville on a road trip that also included a game at Oregon, where UVa rallied to win 67-54 on Sunday.
Against Seattle, Virginia turned the ball over 14 times. “We certainly got out of sorts, but we’ll learn from it,” Bennett said. “We’ll grow from it.”
A team must be able to handle adversity, Bennett said. “We didn’t do a great job with it, but there’s a point as a coach where you try to say, ‘We gotta get some stops, we gotta take care of the ball, and we gotta come together.’ Either it’s going to happen, or it’s not. It kind of came down to those guys on the floor, and it wasn’t like we were going to change plans. We have certain press attacks, and we have a defensive system.
“I said, ‘There’s no trickery here. You’re either going to have to gut this one out, or we’re going home with a loss.’ And they did enough to get one.”