Jan. 20, 2012
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
ATLANTA — The atmosphere inside Philips Arena was tepid Thursday night, save for the cheers of the UVa fans sprinkled throughout the crowd of 5,885.
The atmosphere at John Paul Jones Arena will be infinitely more intense Sunday night. That’s when No. 15 Virginia hosts arch-rival Virginia Tech, a team that remains winless in ACC play.
“The crowd should be crazy,” UVa forward Akil Mitchell said late Thursday night.
The Cavaliers (2-1, 15-2) haven’t played at JPJ since Jan. 7, when they edged Miami 52-51 in their conference opener. The Wahoos followed that with a visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium, where they fell 61-58 to then-No. 8 Duke. Then came a trip to Atlanta, which has been good to UVa basketball in recent years.
If the Georgia Tech fans who bothered to show up Thursday night expected a competitive game, they left disappointed. Virginia took the lead for good about four minutes in and methodically dismantled the Yellow Jackets the rest of the way. The final score was 70-38 — the Cavaliers’ most one-sided ACC victory since a 104-72 win over NC State on Jan. 29, 1991.
“Obviously we played a very good team,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “You’re not a Top 25 team in the country and 15-2 for nothing.”
Not since March 2, 1983, when they romped 107-74 at Wake Forest, had the ‘Hoos won by so many points in an ACC road game.
“We didn’t expect it to be like this, but certainly we’re going to take it, and we’ll keep building on it,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose starting center, 7-0 senior Assane Sene, hurt his right ankle late in the first half and didn’t play after the break.
The victory was UVa’s sixth straight over Georgia Tech and fourth in a row over the Jackets in Atlanta. Their on-campus arena, Alexander Memorial Coliseum, is under renovation, so the Jackets are playing some of their home games at Philips Arena, home of the NBA’s Hawks. The change of venue didn’t change Georgia Tech’s recent fortunes in this series.
In their first season under Gregory, who previously coached at Dayton, the Jackets (1-3, 8-10) are the only ACC team with an overall losing record, and they were absymal Thursday night.
Georgia Tech, which shot 29.2 percent from the floor and 47.4 percent from the line, ended each half with a long scoring drought: 5:12 in the first and 5:41 in the second. UVa doubled up the Jackets on the boards, outrebounding them 45-22.
“They were struggling a little bit, obviously, but I thought our defense had a lot to do with it,” Virginia guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “It was just a good effort for us throughout the night.”
The Cavaliers, off to their best start since 1982-83, hit 9 of their first 12 shots from the floor. During one first-half stretch Virginia scored on 11 consecutive possessions.
Zeglinski and point guard Jontel Evans were a combined 0 for 14 from the floor against Duke last week, and neither scored in that game. They had 16 points between them Thursday night.
A fifth-year senior from Philadelphia, Zeglinski hit two of his team’s five 3-pointers, and his misses from beyond the arc weren’t far off the mark. Evans, a junior from Hampton, opened the scoring with a left-handed layup and finished with 6 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals.
“Give Evans credit,” Gregory said. “He played extremely well tonight … He completely dominated the game without scoring many baskets. He made three baskets all night, but his ability to get to the rim opens up a lot of offensive rebounding.”
Senior forward Mike Scott did nothing to hurt his candidacy for ACC player of the year, contributing 18 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists in 27 minutes. Sophomore swingman Joe Harris sparkled, too, finishing with 16 points (on 7-for-10 shooting), 5 rebounds, 3 assists and a blocked shot.
Harris attempted only one 3-pointer, which he made.
“Like I’ve said before, I didn’t want to just be that one-dimensional player that I kind of was last year,” Harris said. “I think close to 80 percent of my shots were 3s last year, and that makes it a lot easier for people to guard you.”
Virginia shot 50 percent from the floor in the second half and 48.3 percent for the game. Against Georgia Tech’s uninspired defense, the Cavaliers could get virtually any shot they wanted, and they capitalized.
“We felt like we needed to have three guys come to the table scoring-wise,” Bennett said. “We got off to a good start offensively. We got a lot of nice looks. I thought Joe was real sharp early and got us off to a good start. And then our defense kind of took hold, and we made them earn.”
Defensive lapses hurt the ‘Hoos early in the second half, but otherwise Bennett saw little not to like at that end of the court. The Jackets were 1 for 15 from 3-point range.
“We forced them into tough shots,” Evans said. “I think they missed because of our defense. We were pressuring the ball, we weren’t gambling, we were talking out there and communicating. We just were jelling out there on the defensive end.”
Mitchell said: “I think we prepared really well throughout the week. We had a week off, so we kind of knew their actions a lot better. We had a few breakdowns [on defense], but it was a less lot than in Cameron last week.”
By the midpoint of the second half, Georgia Tech supporters began heading home. By the final buzzer, there appeared to be nearly as much orange as yellow inside Philips Arena. The Cavaliers’ supporters included one of Bennett’s 2011-12 recruits, 6-8 forward Evan Nolte, who stars at nearby Milton High School.
About the only thing that marred the night for UVa was Sene’s injury. He went down with 23 seconds left in the half after fouling Georgia Tech guard Mfon Udofia. Sene was helped off the floor and to the locker room by teammates Thomas Rogers and Darion Atkins.
When Sene emerged early in the second half, he was on crutches, and his status for the Virginia Tech game is unclear.
If Sene isn’t available Sunday night, UVa will enter the game with only three post players: Scott, Atkins and Mitchell, who had 4 points and 7 rebounds against Georgia Tech.
“We all gotta step it up even more,” Scott said. “We just gotta hold our own in the paint. It’s going to be a challenge for us, but I think we’ll be fine.”
Virginia Tech (0-4, 11-7) also played Thursday night, losing at home to No. 8 North Carolina. UVa swept its two games with the Hokies in 2010-11, and the teams will meet at least twice again this season. UVa visits Cassell Coliseum on Feb. 21.
“Obviously they’re wars when you play them,” Bennett said. “They’re a different team [this season], but they certainly have some talent, and we’ll have to be ready. I’m sure it’ll be a great atmosphere.”
At the start of business Friday, fewer than 300 tickets remained for the game, which will be the Cavaliers’ first at JPJ since the new semester began. The student section will be packed.
“I know they’re going to bring a lot of energy, and I know the guys are getting pumped for it,” Evans said.
On Wednesday, the first day of classes, “so many people were coming up and talking about how excited they were for that Virginia Tech game,” Harris said. “So I know JPJ’s going to be rocking, and it’s going to be a great atmosphere.”