By Jeff White
BATON ROUGE, La. — The final horn sounded Monday night, and it was official: UVa had beaten LSU in men’s basketball on Jan. 2 for the second straight year.
On the second day of 2011, the teams met at John Paul Jones Arena, where Virginia prevailed 64-50. The rematch was at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and the result was no more satisfying for the LSU students sitting at one end of the 13,241-seat arena.
“Let’s play football,” they chanted. “Let’s play football.”
In that sport, of course, the Tigers are ranked No. 1 nationally, and they’ll meet Alabama for the national championship next week. The Cavaliers have not achieved that status in hoops, but their 57-52 victory Monday night before a crowd of 8,810 offered further proof of their progress under third-year coach Tony Bennett.
“It was a dog fight,” said junior point guard Jontel Evans, who had a game-high 5 assists and 3 steals. “We really needed a game like that, especially going into conference play. I feel like last year or the year before that we would have gotten rattled and end up losing that game. But this year we’re together. Everyone’s on the same page, and we showed it tonight.”
The 21st-ranked Wahoos stretched their winning streak to 11 games — their longest since 1992-93 — and are 13-1 for the first time since 1981-82, Ralph Sampson’s third year on Grounds.
In their final non-conference game of the regular season, the ‘Hoos ended two streaks Monday night: one of theirs and one belonging to LSU (10-4). The victory was the first (in 13 attempts) at a Southeastern Conference school for the Cavaliers, who also snapped the Tigers’ seven-game winning streak.
In a game that had 12 lead changes, Virginia went ahead for good on a layup by senior center Assane Sene with 5:12 to play. LSU kept battling, but senior guard Sammy Zeglinski and sophomore swingman Joe Harris hit clutch 3-pointers in the final 3:25, and senior forward Mike Scott sealed the outcome by making two free throws with 5.8 seconds to play.
“Credit Virginia,” said Justin Hamilton, LSU’s center. “They took advantage of our mistakes. We left some wide-open shooters, and we just didn’t execute the way we wanted to. They are a great team and they did the right things.”
Hamilton, a 7-0, 260-pound junior, got Sene in early foul trouble and finished with a game-high 21 points, 9 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 2 steals. A transfer from Iowa State, Hamilton seriously considered UVa before deciding in the spring of 2010 to play for Trent Johnson at LSU, whose former big men include Shaquille O’Neal, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Stromile Swift and Tyrus Thomas.
“He would have looked good in a Cavalier uniform,” Bennett said with a smile. “We had him on a visit. But if he couldn’t play for me, actually I’m glad he’s playing for Trent. That’s how much respect I have for [Johnson].”
Sene’s final line did not compare favorably to Hamilton’s — 4 points, 2 rebounds and 3 turnovers in 20 minutes — but the 7-footer from Senegal made a huge play in the final 30 seconds.
With UVa leading 54-52, Harris drove into the lane and put up a contested shot. An LSU defender made contact with Harris, but no foul was called, and Hamilton came down with the ball. An instant later, it was in the hands of Sene, who had slyly poked it away from Hamilton.
“I don’t really remember [what happened],” Sene said. “I was just going for the ball. You just gotta keep playing and just be physical and be ready mentally. So when I saw him get the ball, he just turned his back, so I was like, ‘Let me just go for the steal.’ Because big guys do that to me, too. They did that to me all the time. So I was like, ‘Man, let me try it this time. Maybe it’s going to work for me too.’ And it worked, and I’m happy it worked for us. That was a great win.”
Bennett said: “Assane has a big heart. One of our pillars is servanthood, and he wants to serve his team whatever way he can … He hates hurting his team. He hates letting his teammates or his coaches down, you can see that, and certainly you gotta have a soft spot for a guy like that.”
After coming up with the steal — for which he inexplicably was not credited in the box score — Sene tossed the ball toward midcourt, where Zeglinski collected it and was fouled. Zeglinski, a mediocre free-throw shooter until this season, confidently knocked down the front end of a one-and-one to make it 55-52.
Zeglinski, who’s shooting 80 percent from the line this season, missed his second attempt. But LSU’s 3-point attempt was off the mark, and Scott was fouled after pulling down his ninth rebound. Scott (12 points) calmly made both ends of his one-and-one, and then Evans stole the inbounds pass and dribbled out the final seconds.
“This was an important test for us heading into conference play,” said Bennett, whose team hosts Miami (9-4) at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“This was probably the most physical, best defensive team we’ve played, and we’d struggled a little bit in our last couple games. Didn’t play particularly well. Didn’t execute. The teams we played played well, but it was important for us to go against some size and a tough team and come out on top, because you’re going to see this kind of rebounding, you’re going to see this kind of athleticism in our league.”
In only one game this season — an 83-77 win at Seattle on Dec. 21 — has UVa allowed more than 58 points. Johnson, a former Stanford coach, has the Tigers playing rugged defense, too, and nothing came easily for either team Monday night.
“We talk about how you try to impose your will on teams,” Bennett said. “I’m familiar with, obviously, Trent’s coaching and how they play. It was going to be physical. You could just see that from the get-go. Baskets were going to be hard to get.”
In such a game, Bennett noted, “there’s a level of patience and poise that’s required, because you’re not going to just go down one side, touch and be able to break a team like that down.”
Johnson has six players 6-8 or taller, and LSU came in averaging a staggering 15 offensive rebounds a game. The Tigers came away with only six Monday night, and UVa rebounded them 32-26 overall.
“The physicality of tonight’s game is definitely going to help us once we get into the ACC,” Zeglinski said, “because they were so physical down low, and we knew coming in that they were the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the SEC. We knew we had to keep them off the glass, and I felt we did a great job just limiting them to one shot.”
The 6-1 Zeglinski led the ‘Hoos with 17 points. The last of his four treys pushed Virginia’s lead to 51-47 with 3:24 left.
“He’s a fifth-year senior,” Bennett said. “He’s been through a lot, and we needed that … Sammy answered the bell almost every time, as other guys did. But I think his experience paid dividends in this one.”
The 6-6 Harris finished with 14 points on a night when he didn’t score until more than 16 minutes had elapsed.
“They’re a tough defensive team,” Harris said. “They obviously had a great scouting report on us, and they kind of knew our tendencies and took advantage.”
Harris’ first 3-pointer came with 7:50 left and pulled UVa to 44-44. His second, at the 1:28 mark, made it 54-50. Between them, roommates Zeglinski and Harris were 6 for 10 from beyond the arc.
“I expect that from them,” Scott said. “I’m surprised when they miss.”
This was Virginia’s first men’s basketball game in a town that Bennett, a Wisconsin native, knows well. His wife, Laurel, was born and raised in Baton Rouge, and they were married there in 1995.
The Cavaliers were given a private tour of Tiger Stadium on Monday morning and also got a good look at Mike the Tiger, LSU’s fierce mascot. At the Maravich Center that night, there were not many fans in blue and orange, but the Cavaliers’ cheering section included Laurel and her parents, LSU graduates all.
“She better have been cheering for us,” Bennett said, laughing. “I know she was. Her mom and her dad, I think we’ve won ’em over, but I’m not 100-percent sure, because that LSU blood runs thick, now, I’m telling you.”