By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Mike Scott Fan Club is adding new members with every passing game. Boston College coach Steve Donahue came on board last week. Clemson guard Tanner Smith joined Tuesday night after getting his first look of the season at Scott, a 6-8 power forward who has emerged as a leading candidate for ACC player of the year.
“As you saw tonight, the only thing he can’t do is consistently make a half-court shot, and I think that’s about it,” Smith said at John Paul Jones Arena, where Scott led 16th-ranked Virginia to a 65-61 victory over Clemson.
“He’s a great player, very active, unselfish, but demands the ball at big times, and he did that tonight.”
Tigers coach Brad Brownell on Scott: “He is just a tremendous player. You do the best you can.”
Clemson’s best against Scott wasn’t enough in this ACC game. The fifth-year senior from Chesapeake made 8 of 11 shots from the floor and 7 of 8 from the line to help the Cavaliers (5-2, 18-3) secure their third straight victory.
He finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, both game highs, and matched his career high with 3 blocked shots. With 16.8 seconds left and Virginia leading 61-58, Scott was fouled and went to the line for a one-and-one. He hit both ends. After Smith’s fourth 3-pointer pulled the Tigers to 63-61, Scott made two more foul shots with 6.8 seconds remaining to close out the scoring.
“I’m a confident free-throw shooter,” Scott said.
“That makes a difference,” third-year coach Tony Bennett said of Scott’s prowess at the line. “It was significant. Probably the greatest joy as a coach is when you see a player mature on the floor, which he has, and everyone can see that. His game is good.”
But Bennett said he’s equally pleased by Scott’s growth “off the court in terms of leadership, really caring and reaching out for his teammates. Not that he wasn’t that way earlier, but it’s really become a priority to him. And I can’t tell you how enjoyable that is for me to see, and I’m just proud of him to see how he’s responded. Even when we’ve had a few bumps in the road, coming back that next practice, you see it in his eyes, and certainly you see it on the floor.”
UVa point guard Jontel Evans marveled at the way Scott “approaches each game. He’s so focused mentally. Nobody’s knocking him off his game. His focus is unbelievable this year.”
There have been games this season when Scott has had to supply most of the Cavaliers’ scoring. Not this one. Scott’s classmate Sammy Zeglinski’s roller-coaster ride on offense continued against Clemson (3-4, 11-10) — the 6-1 guard made only 1 of 7 shots from 3-point range — but sophomore Joe Harris tied with his ACC career high with 19 points.
“They worried about me so much, they forgot about Joe,” Scott said.
Harris, a 6-6 swingman, missed only twice Tuesday night — once from inside the arc and once from outside. His five 3-pointers tied his career high and helped Virginia shoot a blistering 55.8 percent from the floor.
“I was just taking the open shots when I had them,” Harris said. “When I had room-and-rhythm looks, I was letting it fly.”
The ‘Hoos also got a significant lift from forward Akil Mitchell. In his fourth ACC start, the 6-8, 234-pound sophomore totaled 8 points and 7 rebounds in 35 minutes. Mitchell, who came in shooting 48.1 percent from the line, made 4 of 6 free throws, including both ends of a one-and-one with 1:23 to play.
“It’s all about my mind at this point,” Mitchell said. “I think my mechanics are getting better. I just gotta go up to the line and shoot and not really think about it. I feel like I’m definitely getting better.”
Three nights after they were outrebounded 42-25 in a one-point win at NC State, the Cavaliers redeemed themselves against a Clemson team missing 6-9 forward Milton Jennings (8.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg). Jennings was suspended indefinitely Monday for academic reasons. The ‘Hoos collected 34 rebounds Tuesday night, to only 19 for the Tigers.
“NC State just punished us on the glass,” Scott said. “We worked hard at it in practice and we watched film, and we just told ourselves that wasn’t going to happen again. We just owed it to ourselves to be more aggressive on the boards.”
Junior forward Devin Booker led Clemson with 16 points and Smith added 14. Senior point guard Andre Young, the Tigers’ leading scorer, was held to 7 points. Young missed 9 of 12 shots from the floor, in no small part because of Evans’ suffocating defense, especially in the second half.
“He’s a great player,” Evans said of Young. “Strong, physical, and he can really shoot the lights out. So I just wanted to try to pressure him and get him out of his comfort zone.”
The Tigers shot 48 percent from the floor in the first half. Virginia’s defense was markedly better after intermission. It needed to be, or the players would have felt the wrath of their head coach.
“He doesn’t always seem like he could get that mad, but you don’t really want to see the dark side of him,” Harris said with a smile.
Bennett’s halftime message was direct. “He got on us a little bit,” Evans said. “He just told us that we [weren’t] playing to our ability. That’s our bread and butter, and he just wanted us to pick it up on the defensive end in the second half, and that’s what we did.”
Harris said: “We weren’t playing Virginia basketball there in the first half, and [Bennett] was pretty disappointed with us. He got after us and really challenged us to play with more energy and passion, and I think we did that in the second half.”
The Cavaliers have only eight healthy scholarship players, none taller than 6-8, and so that energy and passion must be present every time out if his team is to be successful, Bennett said.
“We walk a fine line, and we need everything,” he said. “We’re not the deepest. We can’t afford to have many breakdowns. We have to play at a very high level on the defensive end to be in games and then to win games, and the guys have been doing that, and they responded in the second half.
“It’s physically and mentally draining to play that hard for that long, but that’s what’s required, and there’s no other options … We can’t assume we can walk in, just because we’re at home or we’re off to a good start, that we can just show up and beat people. We’ve got to be clicking at a high level. It’s a humbling spot to be in, but it also keeps you ready.”
NEXT UP: Virginia, the ACC’s fourth-place team, meets No. 21 Florida State (5-1, 14-6) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Tallahassee. The Seminoles are the league’s hottest team, having won five games in a row.
“They’re athletic, they’re long, and they got some good shooters,” Scott said, “and they’re very good defensively, so it’s definitely going to be a battle.”
UVa’s players have Wednesday off, and the break is much-needed. The win over Clemson capped a three-games-in-six-nights stretch for the undermanned ‘Hoos.
“I’m sleeping all day tomorrow after classes,” a smiling Mitchell said Tuesday night. “I don’t think anybody else is doing anything else, either.”
Zeglinski said: “We’re all a little sore. It’s been a long stretch, and we’re fortunate to come out of it 3-0, and going forward it’s just going to get tougher against Florida State.”