By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Like millions of basketball fans across the country, UVa coach Tony Bennett and his players watched the dramatic conclusion of the Duke-North Carolina game late Wednesday night.
“It was one for the ages, as they say,” Bennett said the next night at John Paul Jones Arena.
Before a sellout crowd at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, the fifth-ranked Tar Heels led by 10 with 2:38 left. Those fans then witnessed a stunning comeback by the 10th-ranked Blue Devils, who won 85-84 on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by freshman guard Austin Rivers over 7-footer Tyler Zeller.
“I thought UNC had them,” Virginia point guard Jontel Evans said Thursday night, “but Duke, they kept fighting, kept battling and got the game close.”
For Mike Krzyzewski’s team to overcome that late deficit, Bennett noted, “everything pretty much had to go wrong for Carolina and everything had to go right for Duke. We’ve been in that spot before, so you understand that.”
In last year’s ACC tournament, UVa led Miami by 10 points with 40 seconds left in the second half, only to end up losing in overtime. That defeat ended the Cavaliers’ season. The Tar Heels won’t have to wait nearly as long to take the court again.
At 1 p.m. Saturday, UNC (7-2, 20-4) hosts 19th-ranked UVa (6-3, 19-4) at the Smith Center. Evans knows what the Heels’ mindset will be coming into the game.
“They want to beat the heck out of us,” Evans said. “I know they’re mad that they lost one at home against their rival, so I know they’re coming out swinging.”
Bennett said: “Conventional wisdom is that you always hope [an opponent] is feeling good and maybe they aren’t as focused or hungry. But that can go either way. You know that to play top-tier teams like Carolina, you gotta play at a very high level. I’m certain they’ll be as focused and as ready and hungry, maybe even more than had they won.
“There’ll be an edge to them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to play better. They may. But most people, I think, would agree that an elite team coming off a game that they lost in a tough way will come out with everything they got, guns a-blazing.”
That’s how the Wahoos, who had lost four days earlier at Florida State, came out Wednesday night against Wake Forest. The final score at JPJ was 68-44, Virginia, and it wasn’t that close. All-America candidate Mike Scott led the ‘Hoos with 19 points, on 9-for-9 shooting from the floor.
“He was in the zone,” Bennett said of Scott, who almost certainly will encounter more resistance in Chapel Hill.
Virginia has no healthy players bigger than the 6-8, 237-pound Scott. UNC’s starters include the 7-0, 250-pound Zeller and 6-11, 220-pound John Henson.
“I just remember them both being athletic, long,” Scott, a fifth-year senior, said Wednesday night. “Henson’s a very good defensive post player, so it’s going to be a battle.”
Carolina’s other starters include 6-8, 215-pound Harrison Barnes. The Tar Heel who most worries UVa’s coaching staff, though, might be 6-4 point guard Kendall Marshall, a graduate of Bishop O’Connell in Northern Virginia.
“If you want a chance at Carolina, he’s the head of the monster,” Bennett said, “and as they say, you gotta cut the head off if you want to get ’em. He’s maybe the best point guard in the country, certainly one of the top, with vision in transition. But he’s not just a passer. He’ll keep it and get all the way to the rim, and he’s so clever, and he’s got size, that he really makes the thing go.”
Associate head coach Ritchie McKay likens Marshall, a sophomore, to Jason Kidd, and Bennett, a former NBA point guard, considers that an apt comparison.
“With Marshall, if you break down a little bit, he just needs a little bit of daylight, and that ball is right in the window,” Bennett said. “The [fourth-quarter] pass that Eli Manning threw in the Super Bowl, [Marshall is] dropping passes like that a lot.”
For a team that’s averaging 84.1 points — 33 more than the ‘Hoos are allowing per game — Marshall has 234 assists. His average of 9.8 leads the ACC by a huge margin.
“He’s the engine,” said Evans, who leads UVa in assists with 85. “He gets them going, gets guys perfect shots to score.”
Evans, a junior from Hampton, speaks from experience. He and Marshall have been playing against each since before they were teenagers. They later became teammates in the Boo Williams AAU program.
“I backed him up, but sometimes we would play together,” Evans said. “We used to feed off each other’s energy, two point guards out there. It was pretty fun.”
UNC announced Friday that reserve guard P.J. Hairston would miss Saturday’s game because of a foot injury. The Tar Heels already were without junior guards Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, both recovering from season-ending knee injuries.
Virginia, of course, is short-handed too. Senior center Assane Sene, who started the Cavaliers’ first 17 games, hasn’t played since hurting his ankle Jan. 19 in Atlanta. With Sene out, Bennett has divided most of the minutes among six players: Scott, Evans, 6-8 sophomore Akil Mitchell, 6-6 sophomore Joe Harris, 6-5 freshman Malcolm Brogdon and 6-1 fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski.
Only Mitchell played more than 29 minutes against Wake, so the ‘Hoos should be well-rested when they take on UNC. They’ll need every advantage they can muster against the supremely talented Tar Heels.
“They run as well as anybody in the country,” Bennett said. “They rebound as well as anybody in the country. So the little things will be paramount for us: our ability to have our defense set, our ability to execute block-outs when shots go up, having our guards come back and rebound, being good with the ball — you can’t have high turnovers — and getting good shots.”
Seven regular-season games remain for the Cavaliers, who are in position to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006-07. Three will be against teams tied for first in the ACC. UNC visits Charlottesville on Feb. 25, and UVa hosts No. 15 Florida State at JPJ five nights later.
Virginia also must play Maryland twice and visit Clemson and Virginia Tech.
“We know what we have to do,” Bennett said, “and we’ll try to execute to the best of our abilities. There’s great opportunities out there for us.”