By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On Nov. 11, 2007, in front of some 11,000 fans at John Paul Jones Arena, Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski made their debuts for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team.
Scott, a 6-8 forward from Chesapeake, contributed two points in two minutes off the bench in Virginia’s season-opening win over Vermont. Zeglinski, a reserve guard from Philadelphia, played seven scoreless minutes.
Back then, neither Scott nor Zeglinski thought he’d still be wearing a Virginia uniform in March 2012. Nor did either expect to play for a head coach other than Dave Leitao at UVa.
But their careers, as Virginia fans know, did not unfold as planned. Each player would suffer a season-ending injury that resulted in his gaining another year of eligibility — Zeglinski went down in 2007-08, Scott in 2010-11 — and Tony Bennett replaced Leitao as UVa’s coach after the 2008-09 season. And now here they are, preparing to play at JPJ for what they hope will be the final time as Cavaliers.
“We’ve been through a lot since our first time here,” Zeglinski said, “and I think we’ve come a long way.”
At 7 p.m. Thursday, No. 24 UVa (21-7, 8-6) hosts No. 22 Florida State (19-9, 10-4) in an ACC game that ESPN2 will televise. At 6:45, the Cavaliers’ old-timers, 23-year-olds Scott and Zeglinski, will be honored in a Senior Night ceremony, as will injured center Assane Sene (who entered UVa in 2008) and head manager Thomas Tudor.
“I really hope we can send them off with a bang,” Bennett said.
Virginia closes the regular season Sunday afternoon against Maryland (16-12, 6-8) in College Park. The ACC tournament begins March 8 in Atlanta.
The Cavaliers’ fifth-year seniors are old enough to remember when University Hall was regularly used for basketball.
Scott played in AAU games at U-Hall. Zeglinski rolled down from Philly with one of his brothers and their father on March 5, 2006, to see the ‘Hoos play in the aging arena for the final time. (UVa moved into JPJ in 2006-07.)
“I was at the Last Ball at U-Hall, when Ralph Sampson took that tumble when he tried to dunk the ball,” Zeglinski recalled.
Zeglinski has been at least an unofficial member of the UVa hoops family since September 2005, when he committed to the Cavaliers early in his junior year at Penn Charter School. Still, if it seems to others as if Zeglinski and Scott have been at Virginia forever, the players see it differently.
“It just flies by,” said Zeglinski, who’s exactly one month older than Scott.
“I think it just went past so fast,” Scott said. “I’m just trying to enjoy this last one while definitely trying to come out with a win.”
Zeglinski agreed. “The game on Thursday is just real important to us, as far as being Senior Night and because we’re playing for something special: to get into postseason play. It was a little of a blessing in disguise to have us both back for one more year and have a chance to make something special out of this season, to try to get to the NCAA tournament and see what we can do from there.”
Scott, who’s considered a lock for the All-ACC first team, leads the Wahoos in scoring (16.9 ppg) and rebounding (8.1). He’s tied with Barry Parkhill for 12th on UVa’s career scoring list, with 1,437 points, and he’s fourth in career rebounds, with 907. He’s third in career double-doubles, with 31.
The 6-1 Zeglinski has written his name in UVa’s record book, too. He ranks fifth in career 3-pointers, with 192; 11th in career steals, with 148; and 12th in career assists, with 303.
“I’m thankful to Coach Leitao that he brought these guys in,” Bennett said, “and for the fact that they showed up and they worked. We’ve developed a good relationship over the years, and I know how driven they are to leave a legacy here and leave the program in a good place. And so to see the success they’ve had this year has been rewarding for everybody, but certainly for them. They haven’t won a lot here, and so to see them at least having some success [is gratifying].”
The Cavaliers finished 17-16 in 2007-08 — a season that ended with an appearance in the less-than-prestigious College Basketball Invitational — and then dipped to 10-18 in 2008-09. UVa went 15-16 in its first season under Bennett and then improved to 16-15 in 2010-11.
With Sene as their starting center, the ‘Hoos won 15 of their first 17 games this season. Without Sene, who had surgery on his right ankle Jan. 20, the Cavaliers have gone 6-5. Still, for the first time since 2006-07 they’re entering March in position to earn an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament, and that adds to the implications of Virginia’s regular-season home finale.
“We can’t really ask for much more,” Zeglinski said. “Being our Senior Night, it’s going to be a great atmosphere, and everybody knows how important the game is. We know what’s at stake. It could be a signature win for us this season, and it could push us over the edge to get us into postseason play.”
Sene, a native of Senegal, will be cheering for his teammates Thursday night. Bennett would have rather him on the court, of course, but UVa’s third-year coach appreciates Sene’s contributions to the program.
In his 17 games this season, Sene averaged 4.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocked shots. Those modest statistics belie his value to the ‘Hoos.
“I’ve coached a lot of good teams,” Bennett said, “and there’s always one constant on a really good team. There’s a guy or two that does things that don’t show up in the statistical categories, and Assane did that. And it’s been noticeable when we haven’t had him. He’s one of the better teammates on the floor in terms of doing whatever’s required: getting people open with screens, helping defensively, all those areas that just make a really good team.
“He’s one of the best I’ve seen. He’s a great encourager in practice, and he gives maximum effort all the time. And he’s improved. He battled through being new to the game. You know some of those areas that are not as strong for him, that he needs to work on, and he keeps coming back and has great heart. I loved his ability to impact the team, not in huge statistical ways, but just by doing those things that make a good team go.”
Injuries are part of the game, and each of UVa’s seniors has faced obstacles during his college career. Scott suffered a severe high-ankle sprain in the summer of 2007 that limited his effectiveness as a freshman. In 2010-11, he had two operations on his left ankle, the second of which ended Scott’s season after only 10 appearances.
Zeglinski had two operations on his right ankle during the 2007-08 season. As a redshirt sophomore, he played much of the season with an injured left hip that required surgery in April 2010. Then, on the eve of the 2010-11 season, he suffered cartilage damage in his left knee, an injury that required yet another operation and forced Zeglinski to miss UVa’s first seven games.
“To watch Mike go through the adversity of missing [most of] the season and turn that into a positive, and to see Sammy battle through his injuries, go through shooting slumps and just keep showing up and keep plugging, I like those things,” Bennett said. “Their ability to fight through stuff will carry them hopefully for their professional careers, but beyond that, too. And I think they’ve gained a lot from being here, and they’ve given a lot.”
“Sammy, he’s hit a lot of big baskets for us. And he plays through anything. If people only knew how much pain he’s been in, and the injuries he’s had. Yet he keeps coming back, and he’s a very team-oriented guy. He’ll do whatever you ask. You love that.
“And then with Mike, his evolution as a player and certainly as a leader, on and off the court, that’s been fun to see, too. Those are all such positives. Those are the things that make coaching enjoyable, when you see young men turn into men.”
Zeglinski and Scott often have relatives in the stands at UVa’s road games, so it’s no surprise that each will have a substantial cheering section Thursday night at JPJ.
“I have a lot of family and relatives coming down,” Zeglinski said. “They rented a bus, a 15-passenger bus, and they’ll have shirts and stuff like that. I asked them not to do it, but they didn’t listen to me. So they’ll be here, and they’ll be loud.”
Scott’s parents and his brothers will be attendance, along with friends and other relatives. It promises to be an emotional evening for the seniors, but Scott said he’ll try to “take it like a regular game, and just get mentally prepared and physically prepared like any other game.”
On UVa’s Senior Night last season, Will Sherrill and Mustapha Farrakhan went out in storybook fashion. Sherrill hit four 3-pointers and finished with 14 points and 8 rebounds, and Farrakhan had 15 points and 3 assists in a 69-58 win over NC State. If Scott and Zeglinski can bow out with a flourish, too, their coach won’t object.
“We certainly can use that,” Bennett said with a smile.