By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During men’s basketball games at John Paul Jones Arena, Mike Scott is not oblivious to what’s going on in the stands. UVa’s ACC-player-of-the-year candidate has seen many of the signs his fellow students have made in his honor, and he’s impressed.
Among his favorites is the oversized dollar bill — with his face on the front, not George Washington’s — across the top of which is stripped this message: IN SCOTT WE TRUST.
“Pretty creative,” Scott said with a smile after practice Thursday.
Scott and his teammates can count on plenty of support Saturday at JPJ. At 4 p.m., No. 25 UVa (8-5, 21-6) hosts No. 7 North Carolina (11-2, 24-4) in an ACC game that’s been sold out for more than a month.
“We love it,” Scott said of playing at home in front of capacity crowds. “It gives us a lot of energy. I’m going to be pretty hyped.”
The Cavaliers will need every edge they can muster against one of the nation’s tallest and most talented teams. UNC is tied for first in the ACC and has won four straight since losing at home to Duke on a last-second 3-pointer.
Late Tuesday night in Blacksburg, Virginia’s third-year coach, Tony Bennett, challenged his players to put forth “uncommon effort” on the defensive end. They did so in the second half, enabling UVa to come away with a 61-59 victory over arch-rival Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum.
The Wahoos know they must show uncommon effort on the backboards Saturday if they hope to upset the towering Tar Heels. When these teams met Feb. 11 in Chapel Hill, Carolina outrebounded UVa 52-32 and cruised to a 70-52 victory. The Heels turned a staggering 23 offensive rebounds into 23 second-chance points.
“Though we worked on block-outs leading up to that game, I still thought we got in the game and there were times we didn’t do a good enough job of blocking out,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t just one guy. It wasn’t just the inside guys. Sometimes it was the perimeter guys.”
Four nights later, against a Miami team with considerably more size inside than UVa, UNC totaled 24 offensive boards in a nine-point win. Carolina, which leads the nation in rebounding margin (plus-11.2), starts 7-0 Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Harrison Barnes in the frontcourt. Its reserves include 6-9 James Michael McAdoo.
With 7-foot center Assane Sene sidelined by an ankle injury, UVa’s tallest players are Scott, sophomore Akil Mitchell and freshman Darion Atkins. Each is 6-8. In the end, though, rebounding is “30-percent technique and 70-percent effort,” Scott said, “so we just gotta put effort in and try to put a body on people.”
In Chapel Hill, UNC led by only two, 45-43, with 12:45 to play. But the Cavaliers’ effort waned as the second half wore on, and the Heels “just started to get whatever they wanted towards the end of the game,” Scott said. “For the most part, they just pounded us inside. Barnes, Henson and Zeller all just about had a double-double.”
The Heels are “gonna be physical,” Bennett reminded his players during practice Friday. “You gotta stick your nose in there.”
Bennett knows that shutting UNC off the offensive glass is an impossible task, but the Cavaliers can do better than they did at the Dean E. Smith Center two weeks ago.
“I know it sounds strange, but just like you have to make great scorers earn their points and earn their shots, you have to make a great offensive-rebounding team earn,” Bennett said. The Heels “may get a couple of just unbelievable ones that they just get to, but they’ve got to be earned. We can’t give up any of the easy ones.”
And that means every Cavalier must be conscious of blocking out when a UNC shot goes up, even point guard Jontel Evans, who at 5-11 is often the shortest player on the court.
Evans, a junior, averages only 1.9 boards per game. Rebounding usually isn’t a big part of his job description, but it’s “very different going into this game, because they’re a great offensive-rebounding team,” Evans said Friday. “Great rebounding team, period, and we’re going to need all five guys attacking the glass.
“I’m used to just getting long rebounds, but I’m going to have to stick my nose in there and get dirty with the big guys. I’m going to have to be very conscious of that this game.”
In the game at Chapel Hill, Scott and 6-1 Sammy Zeglinski led UVa with 6 rebounds apiece. Mitchell and classmate Joe Harris, a 6-6 swingman, grabbed 5 boards each. Atkins and Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-5 freshman, had 4 each. (UVa also was credited with a team rebound.)
Another key for UVa in the rematch: keeping its big men on the floor. Scott scored a team-high 18 points at Chapel Hill, but foul trouble limited him to 27 minutes. Mitchell and Atkins each ended the game with four fouls.
“I didn’t play the last 10 minutes of the first half in that game, and we still were in it,” Scott said. “So I just gotta try to play smart and not gamble.”
Harris, UVa’s second-leading scorer, broke a bone in his non-shooting hand at Chapel Hill, but he played through the pain and hit two 3-pointers in the second half.
Since that game, Harris has played with his left hand heavily wrapped, and he’s a combined 5 for 16 from the floor (0 for 8 from beyond the arc). He’s not the only Cavalier dealing with an injury. Brogdon has a hurt left foot that may limit his effectiveness against UNC. And then there’s Sene, whose return is not imminent.
In the face of all this adversity, the ‘Hoos stand alone in fourth place in the ACC, with three regular-season games left. And now they have a chance to avenge a humbling loss.
“It definitely stuck with us,” Evans said. “It was the first time we lost by double digits all year, and we were right there in the game with them, and then all of the sudden it just changed. So I know guys are eager to get back out there and get the rematch.”