By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The biggest and loudest crowd of the season held its collective breath Saturday night at John Paul Jones Arena. With 13 seconds left, Miami inbounded the basketball, trailing 21st-ranked UVa by a single point in the ACC opener for both teams.
Thirteen seconds later, the crowd could finally exhale. One final defensive stand by one of the nation’s better defensive teams had foiled the Hurricanes. Jontel Evans, Virginia’s best on-the-ball defender, contested the last shot of the game, a leaner by Miami guard Durand Scott that hit the backboard and bounced off the rim with about 2 seconds left.
Scott came down with the rebound, but another UVa guard, fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski, reached in and grabbed the ball, forcing a jump ball as time ran out.
UVa 52, Miami 51.
“What I really wanted wasn’t open, so I just tried to go for the best opening, knowing that time was running down,” said Scott, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half. “I just didn’t make the shot. Credit to Virginia for playing great defense.”
Miami (0-1, 9-5) had called a timeout to plot its final possession. In the Cavaliers’ huddle, Zeglinski recalled, “We said, ‘This is what we do every day in practice. We gotta get one more stop.’ “
On the Hurricanes’ previous possession, Scott had drawn a foul from Evans on a drive that resulted in a three-point play. When the ball came to Scott this time, Evans said, in “his eyes I was seeing that he wanted to hit the game-winner. He was being aggressive, getting to the rim. He’s really good at getting to the rim.”
The Cavaliers work on defensive slides during every practice, “so that’s what I focused on,” Evans said, “and I ended up getting a good stop. I knew it wasn’t going in when it left his hands, because he double-clutched, and I knew it was going to fall short.”
Third-year coach Tony Bennett said: “We had some lapses defensively for sure in that second half, and it was good at least to come up with one.”
The stop enabled the Wahoos (1-0, 14-1) to extend their winning streak to 12 games, the program’s longest since 1981-82. The victory also was UVa’s 10th in a row at JPJ, where the crowd of 11,283 was in full voice for much of the game.
“I was so excited,” said Virginia forward Darion Atkins, a 6-8 freshman who contributed 4 points, 3 rebounds and 1 blocked shot in 9 minutes off the bench. “I didn’t even know JPJ could get as loud as it did. I loved it.”
On a night when all nine of Bennett’s scholarship players scored, only one really shined offensively: Mike Scott. The 6-8, 237-pound fifth-year forward scored a game-high 23 points and led UVa with 8 rebounds. Scott’s final field goal, on a post move against 6-11, 251-pound Kenny Kadji, put Virginia ahead 52-49 with 50.8 seconds left.
“Mike Scott is a handful,” said Miami’s first-year coach, Jim Larranaga, a former UVa assistant. “He’s having a great year.”
Sophomore swingman Joe Harris, the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer, is having a big season too, but he struggled Saturday night. Harris played only 9 minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls, and he didn’t score until the 7:45 mark of the second half, when he buried a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the right wing.
Those would be his only points. With 18.2 seconds left and the score 52-51, Harris went to the line for a one-and-one. He missed the front end, and the ‘Canes rebounded.
“Obviously I wasn’t too happy about missing it, especially in that situation, but I was just happy we were able to pull it out,” Harris said.
That was the only free-throw attempt Saturday night for Harris, who came in shooting a team-best 84 percent from the line.
“It was kind of one of those situations where I wanted the ball and I wanted to take the foul shot, but I just wasn’t able to convert,” Harris said.
A season ago, of course, the ‘Hoos twice collapsed against the ‘Canes, first in Coral Gables, Fla., and then in Greensboro, N.C., in the ACC tournament’s first round. Mike Scott sat out both of those games with an ankle injury, but he didn’t forget them.
“That was the message I gave my teammates before the game, during the game, and when [the Hurricanes] were making their run: ‘Don’t let this happen again,’ ” Scott said.
Harris said: “Mike was making that very clear, that this wasn’t going to be the same as last year. Obviously those losses last year were tough to swallow, and for us to come and win the game like this and have it come down to the wire and end up coming out in our favor, especially against Miami, it’s pretty sweet.”
The ‘Canes entered their ACC opener having won four games in a row, and they averaged 88 points during that stretch. Against Bennett’s trademark Pack Line defense, Miami scored 17 points and shot 24 percent from the floor in the first half.
The Hurricanes heated up after the break but still shot only 35.3 percent for the game.
“It was great defense,” said Durand Scott, a 6-5 junior from New York City. “They packed the lane really well, stayed in front and played a lot of help side. That was well-coached, and they did a great job on the defensive end tonight.”
The Cavaliers went ahead 14-12 on a jumper by Mike Scott with 7:31 left in the first half. They didn’t relinquish the lead until the 4:03 mark of the second half, when Kadji, a transfer from Florida, threw down an emphatic dunk that put Miami up 46-45.
UVa answered almost immediately. Evans passed to Zeglinski, who hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to make it 48-46. Miami missed at the other end, and then Evans dropped in a floater from the right baseline.
Like his roommate Harris, Zeglinski (2 for 8) did not have a great shooting night. But as he has so many times in his college career, No. 13 came through with a 3-pointer in a pressure situation.
“It was a big play, but at the same time we knew it wasn’t the end of the game,” Zeglinski said. “We just kept grinding them. They made some big plays, and we stepped up and made some big plays of our own. Defensively I thought we did a great job. This is a team that’s been averaging 88 points a game the past four games, so to hold them in the 50s is a pretty good effort.”
Mike Scott was the only player to score in double figures for the ‘Hoos, but they got a boost from their freshmen — Atkins, guard Malcolm Brogdon and swingman Paul Jesperson — who were on the court together for nearly four minutes in the half.
“I was pretty shocked that Coach Bennett did it,” Atkins said, “but I knew that we had to come out there and we had to play.”
Bennett’s message to his freshmen?
“I said, ‘If you play the right way, it doesn’t matter what year you are,’ ” Bennett told reporters. “I thought they held their own defensively, they moved the ball and gave us a great lift, which we needed.”
And now comes the Cavaliers’ ACC road opener, Thursday in Durham, N.C. At 9 p.m., Virginia meets No. 5 Duke (1-0, 13-2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a game that ESPN will televise.
“They’re a great team,” Evans said of the Blue Devils. “Every year they’re great. I’m just looking forward to the challenge.”
To upset Duke, the ‘Hoos almost certainly will have to play better offensively than they did against Miami. They’re confident they can.
“I’m proud that we won, but I still think there’s more in us,” Mike Scott said.
So does his coach.
“The good news was,” Bennett said, “I don’t think we played our best basketball, and I think there’s better basketball in us. We talked about that. We didn’t execute the way we needed to, but this is conference play, and [the Hurricanes] made us struggle, too, so that’s a credit to them.”