By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG — Jontel Evans leaped onto Mike Scott’s back as they ran off the court at Cassell Coliseum late Tuesday night, both cackling with glee during the impromptu piggyback ride. Rarely have these University of Virginia teammates savored a victory more.
“I’m happy, man,” Evans said later in the cramped visitors’ locker room, “because they beat us at our place, and it feels good to beat them at their place, especially your rival. So I’m just very happy right now. All smiles.”
A few feet away sat Scott, more than happy to talk about No. 25 UVa’s 61-59 victory over Virginia Tech.
“Very satisfying,” Scott said. “It would have been even more satisfying if we would have won at JPJ, but that’s in the past. I’m just glad we came out with a win tonight.”
Virginia shot a season-low 32.6 percent from the floor Jan. 22 in its 47-45 loss to Virginia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena. The Wahoos shot nearly 60 percent (25 of 42) in the rematch.
As is usually the case when these bitter rivals meet, the game did not lack for drama. Through its first 26 games, Virginia (8-5 ACC, 21-6 overall) had not had a player disqualified because of fouls. In the 27th, the ‘Hoos lost their starting point guard, Evans, with 2:02 left. Then starting shooting guard Sammy Zeglinski — also Evans’ backup at the point — fouled out 30 seconds later.
That left third-year coach Tony Bennett with six scholarship players, one of whom, 6-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon, had been in for only 65 seconds of the second half. Brogdon had spent most of the half standing near UVa’s bench, trying to keep his throbbing left foot loose in case he was pressed into emergency service. But with Evans and Zeglinski out, Brogdon, even hobbled, was the Cavaliers’ best ball-handler, and so he re-entered the game.
“I wasn’t feeling real confident if that one went into overtime,” Bennett said.
For the final 92 seconds Bennett used, out of necessity, a lineup that included a sophomore (Joe Harris) with a broken left hand, a freshman (Brogdon) who would leave the arena with one of his feet in a protective boot, and another freshman (Paul Jesperson) who came into the season planning to redshirt and watched UVa’s first 11 games from the bench.
“We had Paul, we had Malcolm, and Malcolm’s on one foot,” said the 6-8, 237-pound Scott, who finished with 20 points and 9 rebounds, both game highs. “It was looking pretty tough for us, but I’m just glad those freshmen stayed composed and we came out with a win.”
After playing 17 minutes, then a career high, in UVa’s romp over visiting Maryland on Saturday, Jesperson logged 28 Tuesday night. In front of a near-sellout crowd at Cassell Coliseum, he finished with 7 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists, all career highs. (Jesperson also had 3 boards against Wake Forest). His final field goal, a putback with 43 seconds left, proved to be the game-winner.
“Just to be out there and be in that situation is a blessing,” Jesperson said. “That’s one of things Coach always talks about, being thankful for the opportunity, and I’m definitely thankful and appreciative that I’m able to be in this situation.”
Brogdon could not have been happier for his roommate and close friend.
“I thought tonight he was exceptionally aggressive and really played a big role in that win for us,” Brogdon said. “I’m sure the other team wasn’t expecting him to do anything, and he went out and played his game.”
Brogdon’s contribution was no surprise. He was coming off a spectacular performance against Maryland, and he came through again Tuesday night. Brogdon foiled Tech’s final possession, stealing a pass intended for senior guard Dorenzo Hudson outside the 3-point arc. Hudson had torched UVa in the final minutes at JPJ last month, and he was coming off a game in which his buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave the Hokies an overtime win over Georgia Tech.
“Basically our scouting report said that No. 5, Hudson, wanted to take the big shot,” Brogdon said. The Hokies “knew I was hurt, my ankle was hurting, so whoever I was guarding, I knew they were trying to get the ball to him. So I just tried to deny him.”
With 1.9 seconds left, Brogdon was fouled and went to the line for a one-and-one. He missed the front end, and Hudson grabbed the rebound. But Hudson’s heave didn’t come close to the basket, and the ‘Hoos could finally exhale and celebrate their second straight victory at Cassell Coliseum.
“I’m very thankful for the win,” Bennett said. “I didn’t like the last minute and a half, two minutes. I’m frustrated about that. We gotta finish it better.”
Bennett had no complaints about his team’s defensive effort in the final 20 minutes. After a first half in which the Hokies shot 6 of 9 from 3-point range (and 11 of 20 overall), UVa locked them up. Tech was 2 for 7 from beyond the arc and 7 for 20 overall in the second half.
In each of its previous two road games, UVa had faded in the second half and lost by double digits, first at North Carolina and then at Clemson.
“We had a different energy level, a different focus tonight,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said. “Everybody really rallied, especially on the defensive end. That’s where we all start, on the defensive end, so if we can get stops, our offense kind of flows behind it.
“It’s just a different level of passion that we didn’t have at Clemson … I don’t know if it was [because it was] a rivalry game or what, but we just weren’t going to lose this game.”
After junior point guard Erick Green’s 3-pointer pushed Tech’s lead to 47-39 with 14:46 left, UVa answered with a 17-2 run that began with the second of Zeglinski’s three second-half treys. A floater by Green made it 49-42, but the Hokies didn’t score again for 8 minutes and 25 seconds.
That marked the second straight game in which UVa held its opponent scoreless for more than 8 minutes of the second half.
“We’ll take it,” Bennett said. “It certainly gives us confidence. But we have to play 40 minutes defensively. We can’t play 25 or 20.”
Elsewhere in the ACC, Miami and NC State lost Tuesday night, leaving Virginia alone in fourth place in the league standings. The Hokies (4-9, 15-13) remain in ninth place.
The Cavaliers were “leaking oil at the end, but we hung tough enough and came away with a hard-fought victory,” Bennett said.
UVa went up 59-51 when Evans, a 5-11 junior, banked in a long 3-pointer from the top of the key. The ball appeared to leave his hands an instant after the shot clock sounded, but the officials didn’t stop the game to check the replay.
“Yeah, I thought I beat the clock,” Evans said. “But a couple of my teammates were joking with me, saying I didn’t.” He smiled. “But I did, obviously.”
Tech’s comeback started about 20 seconds later, when Zeglinski, a fifth-year senior, was called for his fourth foul. Green’s two free throws pulled the Hokies to 59-53. Evans was called for charging at the other end — his fourth foul — and then picked up his fifth 30 seconds left on another Green drive.
Green only made 1 of 2 free throws, but after Zeglinski missed a 3-point attempt, Tech attacked the basket again. This time Zeglinski was whistled for the foul, and he joined Evans on the UVa bench with 1:32 left.
Hudson went to the line for two shots. He made only one, pulling Tech to 59-55.
At the other end, Scott failed to convert on a post move, but he and Mitchell leaped for the rebound, tipping the ball out to Jesperson, who caught it in the lane and scored to give UVa a six-point lead.
Jesperson, a 6-6 swingman, is “usually in the right spot at the right time,” Bennett said.
Tech kept coming. Green’s three-point play made it 61-58 with 38 seconds remaining. The Hokies were then forced to foul, and they hacked Mitchell, who came in shooting 53.8 percent from the line.
Mitchell missed the front end of a one-and-one with 36.7 seconds left. Then, with the score 61-59 and 22.5 seconds left, he went back to the line. Mitchell missed the front end this time, too, and Tech, after a wild scramble, came down with a rebound that Harris, had his left hand not been heavily wrapped and sore, almost certainly would secured.
“I’m not going to second-guess myself,” Mitchell said. “I’m confident going to the line at any time in the game. I just gotta hit ’em next time.”
Green (19 points) was the only player to score in double figures for Tech, which played without its starting center, 6-8 Victor Davila, who missed his third straight game with a groin injury.
For Virginia, Evans and Zeglinski had 13 points apiece to complement Scott’s latest tour de force. Evans made all four of his shots from the floor and also had a game-high 5 assists. Zeglinski’s line also included 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
“I just wanted to step up for my teammates,” said Zeglinski, who was scoreless in the first half. “I knew I had to come out aggressive. Mike was carrying the load for us in the first half, and Jontel did a good job in the first half, and I just wanted to be that third scorer and give us a boost. Being a senior, this is my last time here, and I just wanted to leave everything on the floor.”
Zeglinski’s final 3-pointer made it 49-49 with 9:28 left, and the ‘Hoos never trailed again. With 3:40 left, Zeglinski tied up Tech guard Robert Brown on a drive, forcing a jump ball that gave possession back to Virginia.
“Good job,” Bennett said when asked about Zeglinski. “He guarded well, made some big shots, got the ball inside to Mike, and Mike had another good game. I wish we could have gotten a couple more touches to Mike down the stretch. We had some costly turnovers. But again, we snuck one out on the road, and these are two banged-up teams playing.”
UP NEXT: UVa hosts No. 7 North Carolina (11-2, 24-4) at 4 p.m. Saturday at sold-out JPJ. When the teams met Feb. 11 in Chapel Hill, the towering Tar Heels outrebounded the Cavaliers 53-32 and pulled away for a 70-52 victory.
Brogdon’s availability for the rematch is uncertain. He’s been playing with pain in the top of his left foot for some time, but it’s gotten worse since the Maryland game.
“Just a really bad, throbbing pain,” he said. “Every time I step on it or push off of it, it just hurts bad.”
Brogdon said he had foot problems in high school, too, and wears orthotics that “really help.”
The injury, he said, is “something I’m going to have to treat, and it can come back if I don’t treat it well, but I don’t think it’s a big problem at all.”