CHARLOTTESVILLE — Just before Virginia forward Mike Scott sank two free throws — points 15 and 16 for him on the night — with just less than 13 minutes remaining Tuesday night against Winthrop, the fifth-year senior discussed in a huddle with the other four Cavaliers on the floor their most immediate objective: Just get stops.
At that point, the Virginia fans in attendance at John Paul Jones Arena could count on one hand their team’s lead over a Big South squad that finished four games below .500 last season.
Scott was subbed out of the game moments later, his team ahead by only one, and then Virginia did something unexpected and promising. With their preseason all-ACC forward on the bench for a stretch that lasted nearly six minutes, the Cavaliers played some of their best basketball of the night. It was a defining stretch that sealed Virginia’s 69-48 win.
The Cavaliers (2-0) most often are a better squad when Scott — who averaged a double-double during the first 10 games last year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury — is on the floor. He all but carried the team offensively in the first half and finished with a game-high 18 points and eight rebounds. Virginia widely has been predicted to earn an NCAA tournament bid this season, and Scott is a major reason why.
But for one 5-minute 48-second period, five Cavaliers players not named Mike Scott were Coach Tony Bennett’s best options. And even Scott acknowledged afterward that is not an insignificant fact.
“It was very uplifting,” Scott said. “It gave us a lot of confidence. It gave me a lot of confidence in my teammates. I already knew they could do it; I just wanted to see that they could, and they proved me right.”
Junior guard Jontel Evans did a significant amount of proving. After picking up two fouls and logging just nine minutes in the first half, Evans — who shot 39 percent from the field last year — scored 14 second-half points. He shot 5 of 6 from the field to finish with a career-high 17 points.
“We’ll take those numbers and stats every game if he’ll give them to us,” Bennett said.
With fifth-year guard Sammy Zeglinski out with a sprained ankle, Evans and freshman Malcolm Brogdon have shouldered the point guard responsibilities during Virginia’s first two games. Brogdon logged 30 minutes Tuesday and finished eight points and three assists.
But perhaps more important, he was on the court during that critical second-half stretch when Scott was on the bench. And it was the defensive continuity of Brogdon, Evans, sophomore guard Joe Harris, senior center Assane Sene and sophomore forward Akil Mitchell that so impressed Bennett that he kept them on the floor for a prolonged period.
Winthrop took a three-point lead with 10:30 to play. The Eagles (0-2) scored four points the rest of the game. When Scott re-entered the contest with just less than six minutes remaining, Virginia led by nine.
“Obviously, with Mike out there it makes us that much better,” Harris said. “And then to know that we can play pretty well without him, that’s a really good sign.”