By Jeff White (email@example.com)
RALEIGH, N.C. — Coming out of the timeout, point guard Jontel Evans flashed back to Jan. 7, when the ACC opener for the UVa men’s basketball team came down to the final possession.
That game was at John Paul Jones Arena, where Virginia secured a one-point victory over Miami with a defensive stop in the final seconds. This one was at the RBC Center, where NC State, trailing 61-60, inbounded the ball with 7.8 seconds left Saturday night, its fans in full voice.
“It felt like we were playing Miami again,” Evans said. “Same type of situation.”
Same ending, too, as the Cavaliers’ defense delivered yet again in what is becoming a special season for third-year coach Tony Bennett’s team. Wolfpack reserve center DeShawn Painter set a screen outside for guard Lorenzo Brown, who was hounded by Evans. Brown dribbled around the pick, only to find himself harassed at the top of the key by Painter’s defender, 6-8 forward Akil Mitchell.
“Akil did a great job of blitzing,” Evans said, “and made [Brown] take a dribble out, and it gave me time to recover and get back on him and make him take a tough shot.”
Brown had hoped to penetrate and then pass the ball back out to Scott Wood, one of the nation’s most feared 3-point shooters. Wood’s trey with 50 seconds left, after the Wahoos once again failed to come down with a defensive rebound, had pulled State to 61-60 and sent the red-clad fans in the crowd of 17,027 into a frenzy.
But Mitchell and Evans stayed in front of Brown, and 6-1 guard Sammy Zeglinski stayed close to the 6-6 Wood. With time running out, Brown had to launch a contested 3-pointer from the right wing.
“I thought he might have gotten bumped pretty good there,” State coach Mark Gottfried said, but no was foul was called, the shot missed, and the horn sounded before the Pack could attempt a putback.
Virginia 61, NC State 60.
“I thought Akil did a terrific job of taking Brown out of the play,” Bennett said. “Fortunately there wasn’t too much time left, or they might have gotten a 19th offensive rebound.”
This ranks among the most unusual victories of Bennett’s tenure at Virginia. “I think I’ll watch this tape and scratch my head,” he said, “as I’m sure Coach [Gottfried] will on the other side, but we’ll take it.”
The Wolfpack, led by 6-8, 250-pound junior Richard Howell (18 rebounds), abused the 19th-ranked Wahoos on the backboards, 42-25. State turned its 18 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points. Moreover, Bennett’s team made only four field goals in the second half: two by sophomore Joe Harris and one each by fifth-year seniors Mike Scott and Zeglinski.
All that, and UVa (4-2, 17-3) still walked off the court with its fourth straight victory over the Pack (4-3, 15-7).
“When you’re on the road, you try to steal one, and that’s what we did,” Bennett said.
Torrid first-half shooting, coupled with solid second-half defense, carried the Cavaliers in front of a raucous crowd that tried its best to rattle the visitors and, at times, succeeded.
“NC State has great fans, and it was really rocking in here,” said Harris, who finished with 12 points. “NC State’s a great team, too, so for us to come out here and get the ‘W,’ that’s huge for us.”
In 2008-09, the Cavaliers’ final season under Dave Leitao, they won 10 games. The ‘Hoos won 15 in Bennett’s first season and then 16 in 2010-11. Virginia surpassed that total Saturday, with 10 regular-season games left.
“It’s a good feeling,” Zeglinski said. “We’ve definitely come a long way since I’ve been here, since Mike’s been here. Now we gotta keep it going. We got another quick turnaround.”
Virginia hosts Clemson (3-3, 11-9) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at JPJ. It will be the Cavaliers’ third game in six days, another challenge for a team that, with 7-foot center Assane Sene out with an ankle injury, has only eight healthy scholarship players. That group includes Mitchell, a sophomore who hurt his right foot early in the first half Saturday night and had to leave the game.
“I said, ‘This is going to be an interesting one,’ ” Bennett recalled with a smile.
Mitchell said: “I landed on Joe’s foot. I don’t know what I did to it, but it hurt. Just taped it up and kind of played through it.”
Darion Atkins, a 6-8 freshman, went in while head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba worked on Mitchell’s foot. Mitchell soon returned, but he logged only 16 minutes in this game — Atkins played 12 — as Bennett surrounded the 6-8 Scott with four perimeter players for long stretches.
None of the combinations Bennett tried were able to keep the Wolfpack off the offensive glass.
“They’ve got a really big, athletic team,” Mitchell said, “and they just kind of beat us up on the boards.”
Howell, who had 9 offensive rebounds, fouled out with 1:47 left, sending Scott to the line for two free throws that made it 61-55. Even with Howell on the bench, though, Virginia couldn’t come up with the rebound after sophomore forward C.J. Leslie (17 points, 5 rebounds) missed a free throw with 50 seconds remaining.
Painter tipped the ball out, and Wood, only 1 of 7 from beyond the arc at that point, collected the loose ball and went up with a shot from the deep left corner. This bomb found its mark, and suddenly this was a one-point game.
“They beat us up on the boards tonight,” Scott said. “It’s something we just need to get back to work on … It’s all about effort.”
Bennett praised State’s quickness and athleticism but was none too pleased with his team’s rebounding Saturday night. The ‘Hoos had played two nights earlier, beating Boston College at JPJ, and they often appeared a step slow against NC State.
“We usually crack it a little harder and work between games, especially on defensive rebounding, and we didn’t do that [because of the quick turnaround],” Bennett said. “I don’t know if we were a little soggy or a little soft upstairs, because it’s a physical deal, and you gotta react quick to it. And Leslie and Howell and those guys, they get on the glass really quick. They’re impressive, but we’re going to see that from here on out, and I told our guys, we better get back to what we do, or we’re in trouble.”
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they shot 60 percent from floor in the first half Saturday night and went into the break with a 38-31 lead. Zeglinski made all three of his shots in the first half — all 3-pointers — and Scott was 4 for 5. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon was 3 for 5 in 15 first-half minutes off the bench.
“In the first half, we were poor defensively,” Bennett said. “To start the game, [State’s players] were quick to the glass, they were more physical, they really took it at us, and we weren’t ready. Thankfully we were hitting shots. It was a little bit of a role reversal. Our offense kept us in it in the first half, or gave us the lead, and our defense let us down. And then I thought in the second half our defense was better — not great — but was better, and our offense struggled.”
Scott cooled off in the second half, going 1 for 6 from the floor, but still finished with a game-high 18 points. Harris and Zeglinski added 12 apiece. Zeglinski’s final trey of the night pushed his career total to 180, fifth all-time at UVa. In fourth place is J.R. Reynolds (221).
Reynolds starred for the UVa team that won 21 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round in 2006-07. The Cavaliers haven’t been back to the NCAAs since then, but every victory this season moves them closer to their goal.
“It’s going to be a challenge each night, because we’re a couple men down,” Scott said. “We just gotta keep fighting, keep working.”
Two free throws by Harris gave UVa a 55-45 lead with 6:31 left, but the Pack battled back behind senior guard C.J. Williams (14 points).
“I think they’re one of the more talented offensive teams we’ve played this year,” Bennett said, “and they’ve got a lot of ways to hurt you.”
In the end, though, the ‘Hoos, off to their best start in 29 years, were able to vanquish the Pack and quiet the crowd. Virginia has already won five road games, its most in a season since 2000-01.
“Our guys have shown resilience, they’ve battled hard,” Bennett said. “I feel very thankful [to be 17-3]. As they say, ‘Always thankful, never satisfied,’ and that’s kind of the mindset I want our guys to have.”