BLACKSBURG, Va. — All season, Virginia has been putting to rest any doubts that may remain about Coach Tony Bennett in his third year leading the program. But on Tuesday night, as the Cavaliers inched closer to their first NCAA tournament berth since 2007 with a 61-59 victory over rival Virginia Tech, they finally showed the offensive firepower to overcome a second-half deficit and some serious foul trouble.
Behind 13 second-half points from guard Sammy Zeglinski and a 20-point, nine-rebound performance from star Mike Scott, No. 25 Virginia won despite trailing by eight points after halftime to avoid getting swept by the Hokies for the second time in three years.
But in a series that has seen nine of the past 10 games decided by seven points or fewer, there were tense moments after Zeglinski and senior Jontel Evans fouled out within 30 seconds in the final two minutes. The foul trouble left the Cavaliers with no scholarship guards on their bench.
Virginia took a 59-51 lead with just more than three minutes remaining when Evans banked in a three-pointer from the top of the key as the shot clock expired.
But the Hokies began to chip away. A free throw by leading scorer Erick Green with 26 seconds left cut the deficit to 61-59. When Virginia’s Akil Mitchell missed a free throw with less than 18 seconds to go, the Hokies had a chance for their third game-winning shot in four games.
But Cavaliers freshman Malcolm Brogdon, playing through an injury to the top of his left foot, stole a pass from Virginia Tech’s Dorian Finney-Smith, the final miscue for an offense that scored just one field goal over the final 13 minutes.
“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,” said Evans, who finished with 13 points and five assists. “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.”
During his postgame news conference, Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said he was “disappointed” officials didn’t check the courtside monitor to see if Evans’s three-point prayer occurred after the shot clock expired. But it was Virginia’s 17-2 run preceding Evans’s shot that ultimately did in the Hokies (15-13, 4-9), who fell to 5-8 in games decided by four points or fewer.
Virginia Tech took a 47-39 lead with less than 15 minutes remaining when Green nailed two three-pointers to cap a 10-2 run, part of a night in which Virginia Tech finished 8 of 16 from behind the three-point line.
But following a Bennett timeout, Zeglinski steadied Virginia (21-6, 8-5) with a three-pointer and scored 10 points during Virginia’s defining surge. When Scott completed a three-point play with 4:49 left, the Cavaliers suddenly had a seven-point lead.
By the time Virginia Tech freshman Robert Brown made two free throws just before the final media timeout, the Hokies had gone 8:25 without a point and whatever momentum they enjoyed after hitting six of their first eight three-pointers had vanished.
“We weren’t patient. We got down to the end of the shot clock and had to force up a shot and go one-on-one. That’s not what we had been doing” in the first half, said Green, who led the Hokies with 19 points.
After being held to just 10 points on nine shots when Virginia Tech upset Virginia, 47-45, on Jan. 22 in Charlottesville, Scott reached double figures in scoring 13 minutes into Tuesday night’s game and had 15 points by halftime. Virginia shot 59.5 percent from the field for the game.
But even as Virginia missed just six shots over the first 20 minutes, it trailed throughout a first half that bore little resemblance to the teams’ grind-it-out affair last month. Then, though, the Cavaliers showed the sort of second-half resilience that should come in handy as the calendar turns to March.