Before Tuesday night’s game at Virginia Tech, Virginia Coach Bennett challenged his players to give an “uncommon” effort on the defensive end against a Hokies squad known in large part this season for its proclivity to play in tightly contested affairs. The Cavaliers had compiled a high quantity of victories this season, but have not acquired a similarly strong number of quality wins.
As such, despite having reached the 20-win plateau, Virginia’s players knew they could not afford to drop a decision against one of the worst teams in the ACC (record-wise, at least). They could not give NCAA tournament selection committee officials another reason to dismiss their credentials. Tuesday night’s game was a rivalry, sure, but the contest represented much more than that to the Cavaliers.
“I feel like guys know what’s at stake,” junior guard Jontel Evans said. “Guys want to play in the NCAA tournament, and we just want to come out here and play with the mentality like somebody is trying to take that away from us. And we don’t want it to be taken away from us, so that’s why we came out here and played with a lot of passion and a lot of energy and a lot of heart.”
Virginia did not meet Bennett’s challenge in the first half, fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski said. The Cavaliers allowed Virginia Tech to make 6 of 9 three-pointers (66.7 percent) and entered halftime trailing by three.
But – in stark contrast to recent ACC road performances – the Cavaliers responded to a second-half run by their opponent with a one-sided spurt of their own and held on for a 61-59 victory that improved their season mark to 21-6. They are 8-5 in conference play, and they will enter Saturday’s home game against No. 7 North Carolina with an opportunity to erase any and all doubt that they belong in the field of 68.
“I’m very thankful for the win,” Bennett said. “I just didn’t like the last minute and a half to two minutes. I’m frustrated about that. We’ve got to finish it better, but to withstand that – I’m sure they got tired. We got tired. But to withstand that and have that run, you know, we’ll take it. It certainly gives us confidence, but we have to play 40 minutes defensively. We can’t play 25 or 20; whatever we did.”
1) Freshmen. We’ll start with freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, who logged 13 minutes off the bench Tuesday despite a left foot injury that has bugged him since last Friday. Brogdon said he did not believe the injury would remain a serious hindrance to his ability to play and play effectively, but how that plays out remains to be seen.
On Tuesday, at least, Brogdon gave a gutsy performance and came up with a clutch play on Virginia Tech’s final offensive possession. He tallied a steal with 1.9 seconds left on the game clock to all but seal Virginia’s win. The plan had been for him to not play at all in the second half, but he ended up in the game for the final 92 seconds after Evans and Zeglinski fouled out.
Consequently, freshman guard Paul Jesperson also was in the game at the very end, which previously had not happened this season in a highly contentious game. With Brogdon limited, sophomore guard Joe Harris still recovering from a broken left (non-shooting) hand and Evans and Zeglinski in foul trouble, Jesperson logged a career-high 28 minutes at Virginia Tech. He finished with seven points, three rebounds, three assists and one turnover. He shot 3 of 5 from the field and made 1 of 2 three-point attempts.
Oh, and he made what proved to be the game-winning basket after grabbing an offensive rebound and scoring on a putback with 43 seconds remaining in regulation.
“He’s got feel; he’s good,” Bennett said of Jesperson. “He’s got to get better defensively, but he made a couple of tough shots. He’s usually at the right spot at the right time. I was real happy for him. With Malcolm being hurt and our depth being limited, that’s where you need something you don’t expect to come away with a close win.”
And though freshman forward Darion Atkins logged just 11 minutes, he made an impact, as well. He recorded two blocks during a second half in which Virginia held the Hokies to 5-of-13 shooting (38.5 percent) on two-point field goal attempts.
2) Second-half run. The past two times Virginia played on the road entering Tuesday night, the Cavaliers had witnessed their opponent reel off a second half run and had been unable to respond. The results: an 18-point loss at North Carolina and a 12-point defeat at Clemson. So when Virginia Tech executed a 12-4 run to extend its lead to eight points early in the second half Tuesday, recent history suggested the Cavaliers were in for another crushing setback.
But out of a Virginia timeout with 14 minutes 46 seconds to play in the second half, the Cavaliers went on a 17-2 run of their own and never trailed again.
What was the difference this time around? Naturally, Bennett and his players credited an improved defensive stinginess over their recent second-half road performances. Bennett said the Cavaliers were getting stops, rather than exchanging buckets, as the two teams had done in the first half. Indeed, Virginia Tech shot 35 percent from the field and made 2 of 7 three-pointers (28.6 percent) after the intermission.
“We really rallied,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said. “We had a different energy level, a different focus tonight. Everybody really rallied, especially on the defensive end.”
And what spurred that rally, particularly when such an ability hadn’t previously revealed itself?
“It was just a different level of passion than we had at Clemson,” Mitchell said. “We really prided ourselves on making stops. At Clemson, when we got down, we kind of slumped off. 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.”
And why was there a different level of passion this time around?
“We knew what we’re trying to get to and the goals we’re trying to get to, the postseason,” said fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, who finished with a game-high 20 points on 9 of 16 shooting and nine rebounds. “So we need every game right now.”
3) Zeglinski and Evans. In between the personal fouls they tallied, Zeglinski and Evans turned in solid performances. Zeglinski shot 5 for 9 from the field and, perhaps more importantly for his confidence, made 3 of 7 three-point attempts. He finished with 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. The three-pointer he made with 9:31 remaining in the game tied the score at 49. Evans scored a few minutes later gave the Cavaliers the lead. Virginia never trailed again.
Zeglinski and Evans combined to tally 20 of Virginia’s 29 points in the second half. Who would have guessed before the game that that would prove to be the case?
With just more than three minutes to play, Evans banked in a three-pointer – just his fifth of the season – from the top of the key to push Virginia’s lead to eight, its largest of the night. Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg disputed afterward that Evans got the attempt off before the shot clock expired, but the play was not reviewed at the time.
And though television replays seem to suggest Greenberg’s complaint has some validity, Evans (in full grin) said without hesitation that the ball definitely had left his fingertips before the horn sounded. Evans finished with 13 points on 4-of-4 shooting and five assists to go along with four turnovers.
Evans “put some pressure on them in the lane and was guarding well,” Bennett said. “Jontel gave us a great spark. He really was our engine because he got the guys fired up. You could see it. He put the pressure on them defensively that I thought made a difference.”
1) First-half defense. Remember how the score was tied at halftime Saturday when Virginia was hosting Maryland? And how that was made possible by the fact the Terrapins made 7 of 13 three-pointers before halftime? Well on Tuesday, Virginia Tech made 6 of 9 three-point attempts in the first half and held a three-point lead at the break. Bennett said the Cavaliers were slow to recover and defend the perimeter before the intermission, something they addressed at halftime.
“In the second half, I thought we were there on the catch more than we were in the first half when they kind of pulled us in with a middle ball screen action,” Bennett said. “They dove and then we’d try to help and they’d kick it to the corner. . . . We said, ‘Get there on the catch.’ ”
In the second half, Virginia Tech made 2 of 7 three-pointers. Virginia, meantime, made well above half its shots most of the night and finished with a 59.5 percent shooting percentage.
2) Mike Scott’s touches down the stretch. Scott finished with 20 points, but only five of those points came in the second half, during which he shot 2 for 6 from the field. Virginia Tech essentially did its best to force Scott’s teammates to beat the Hokies, and they did. But that didn’t mean Bennett didn’t feel his team couldn’t have done a better job feeding the ball to their star player in the game’s closing minutes.
“I wish we could have gotten a couple more touches into Mike down the stretch,” Bennett said. “We had some costly turnovers. But again, we snuck one out on the road.”
3) Fouls. Virginia fans can gripe if they so choose about the legitimacy of some of the fouls called on certain Cavaliers during Tuesday night’s game, but the fact is those fouls were called. And that forced Virginia to extend itself in ways it had not planned. Brogdon, for instance, was not supposed to play in the second half, but he had to when Evans and Zeglinski fouled out within 30 seconds of each other in the game’s closing minutes.
It marked the first two times all season when a Virginia player fouled out of a game.
“The last two [fouls] that they called on Jontel and on Sammy were both on Joe” Harris, Mitchell said. “They should have called both of those on Joe. It was crazy. I’d never seen anything like that. I was telling Joe to run up to the table and try to get them to call the foul on him, but he wouldn’t do it.”
By the end of the game, Bennett had just three scholarship guards at his disposal, and only one of them (Jesperson) was fully healthy. Harris (hand) tallied two points on 1 of 4 shooting (0 for 3 from three-point range) with three assists, three turnovers and two steals in 32 minutes Tuesday.
“I wasn’t feeling real confident if that one went into overtime just because you’ve got to have primary ball-handlers on the floor,” Bennett said. “We would have certainly battled through it, that’s for sure.”