The value of each possession during No. 21 Virginia’s 52-51 win Saturday over Miami was amplified by the fact that there were so few of them to go around. Each team had roughly 56 possessions – it was a very slow-paced game – and neither squad average a full point per possession.
So it mattered greatly that even though Miami tallied more offensive rebounds (13) than Virginia (11), the Cavaliers outscored the Hurricanes, 12-7, in second-chance points.
And it was significant that Virginia was able to convert Miami’s 12 turnovers into eight points, while the Hurricanes were able to turn the Cavaliers’ seven turnovers into two points.
There was no question that a strong defensive effort (and a healthy dose of Mike Scott on offense) carried Virginia to victory Saturday in its ACC opener. But while the Cavaliers were happy to have earned the win, they don’t often want to be in a position of having to find out how tenable relying solely on that combination is in conference play.
“Every conference game is going to be a battle, and you want to try desperately to protect home court,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “Certainly you want to get ’em on the ropes and steal one on the road, but you’ve got to try to hold serve at home. I felt like this was an important game coming off of a nice winning streak … but this Miami team is capable. So I thought for us to even not play our best, but to find a way was very important.”
1) Mike Scott. For the most part, Virginia played solid defense in conference play last season. But back then, the Cavaliers rarely could overcome poor shooting nights. Of Virginia’s seven ACC wins in 2010-11, only two of them occurred when the Cavaliers shot less than 40 percent from the field. Bennett would prefer not to find out, but it’s likely Virginia will have a better chance of winning even on nights when several players’ shots aren’t falling because in addition to playing solid defense, the Cavaliers now have Mike Scott. He missed the second half of the season last year with an ankle injury. On Saturday, Virginia shot 38.2 percent from the field. Take away Scott’s 9 for 20 shooting performance, and the Cavaliers shot 34.3 percent. Scott finished with a game-high 23 points. No other Virginia player tallied more than six.
2) Akil Mitchell. With senior center Assane Sene continuing to be fairly unproductive on the glass, Scott needed some help in the rebounding department, as well, and Mitchell stepped in quite nicely. The sophomore forward finished with seven rebounds, including a key offensive board late in the game. On the season, Mitchell now is averaging 3.8 rebounds per game. That’s not outstanding by any means, but it is better than Sene (3.7). With neither player contributing an overwhelming number of points per game – Sene is averaging 5.1 ppg, while Mitchell is chipping in 3.3 – it will be interesting to see how the playing time fluctuates between the two big men in the coming weeks should they each continue to produce at their current rates.
3) Freshmen spark. With just more than 11 minutes remaining in the first half Saturday, freshmen forward Darion Atkins subbed into the game for the first time. At that point, Virginia trailed, 10-6. Two seconds later, Atkins committed a personal foul, Miami guard DeQuan Jones scored a free throw to push the Hurricanes’ lead to five and Virginia freshmen guard Paul Jesperson checked into the game. This was the Cavaliers’ five-man lineup: Atkins, Jesperson, freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell and sophomore guard Joe Harris. It was an interesting and bold look for a Virginia squad that found itself in an early hole.
“That was big for us, as freshmen, to be out there and be able to do that,” Atkins said later. “I couldn’t believe that Coach Bennett did that, that he trusted us enough to do that.”
Over nearly the next five minutes of play, Virginia’s freshmen ignited the Cavaliers on a 10-1 run that propelled them into the lead. On three straight possessions, Atkins scored on a put-back dunk, Jesperson hit a long jump shot and Brogdon scored off an offensive rebound.
Brogdon finished with five points, four rebounds, two assists and two turnovers in 21 minutes. Atkins tallied four points, three rebounds and one block in nine minutes. Jesperson logged four minutes, but did hit that jumper.
“It was good to see Paul hit a shot. He did a good job,” Bennett said. “And certainly looking at Darion and Malcolm, you know, we’re a team. I said that if you play the right way, it doesn’t matter what year you are, that’s valuable experience, but you’ve got to be sound. I thought they held their own defensively and moved the ball and gave us a great lift, which we needed.”
1) Cold shooting. With the way this Virginia team is constructed, the Cavaliers have to be able to depend on more offensive production from sophomore guard Joe Harris and fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski on a nightly basis. Harris and Zeglinski – who entered Saturday shooting a combined 44.9 percent from the field – combined to shoot 3 of 13 (23.1 percent) from the field against Miami. Between the two of them, they scored nine points.
Certainly, they were not the only Virginia players who struggled to find their shooting touch Saturday. And certainly, one off night is no reason to panic. But at least for Harris, even just finding open looks was a struggle. Guarded closely for most of the night by Miami’s Trey McKinney Jones, Harris attempted just five shots, and many of them came late in the game. Harris entered the night attempting roughly nine shots per game.
2) Second-half defensive lapses. After allowing Miami to score only 17 points in the first half Saturday, Virginia gave up 34 points after the intermission. The Hurricanes shot 46.2 percent from the field in the second half. They seemed to be penetrating into the lane more frequently. According to Bennett and several Virginia players, Miami also found some success in breaking down the Cavaliers’ post trap. Zeglinski said Virginia started out the second half by trying to trap Miami forward Reggie Johnson high in the post. But Johnson began passing the ball to the opposite wing for open looks. Eventually, the Cavaliers adjusted by allowing Johnson and other Miami forwards to catch the ball deeper in the post and trying to choke down on them once they caught the ball.
3) Free throw shooting. For starters, Virginia made 6 of 10 free throws. That’s not a great percentage. Also, Harris missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with 18.2 seconds remaining in the game and the Cavaliers clinging to a one-point lead. Coaches and teammates expect Harris – who entered the night as Virginia’s most accurate free throw shooter – to hit that shot. But even the best free throw shooters miss from time to time. Harris likely will continue to be one of the team’s top shooters from the charity stripe.
More at issue is the number of free throws the Cavaliers attempted Saturday. Especially on a night when the team mostly is struggling to shoot – and, by extension, to score – Virginia has to find a way to get to the free throw line more frequently. Harris was the only Virginia guard to shoot a free throw all night, and the only reason he attempted that one shot was because Miami was desperate and had to foul.
Harris, Brogdon and junior guard Jontel Evans simply have to do a better job of penetrating into the lane and getting fouled en route to the basket. It wouldn’t hurt if Zeglinski tried to do that some, too, though he’s been primarily a three-point shooter this season. Of his 99 shot attempts, 74 have come from beyond the three-point arc.