Virginia beats No. 24 UAB, 72-63, in men's basketball
Thursday, December 31, 2009
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Sylven Landesberg waved his arms toward the John Paul Jones Arena crowd on Wednesday, encouraging fans to chant louder in the waning seconds of the first major victory of the Tony Bennett era. Bennett continued barking instructions, coaching until the final buzzer of Virginia's 72-63 victory over No. 24 Alabama-Birmingham.
UAB's name will not resonate much with the general public, but wins over Butler and Cincinnati propelled the Blazers into the top 25. The victory injected confidence into Virginia (7-4), which had not beaten a team in a power conference or in the top 25 before Wednesday.
"We've been knocking on the door of a lot of close losses," sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said, referencing three last-minute losses to power-conference opponents. "Tonight was a good night to see where we're at talent-wise. They're a very skilled team, have a lot of athletes. So, they were a good test going into the ACC. I think we'll keep getting better, but tonight we showed defensively we can really bear down and make adjustments during the game to get it done."
Zeglinski touched on a point that most pleased Bennett. The Cavaliers trailed through much of the game, including a five-point halftime deficit and seven points as late as seven minutes into the second half. They frequently counted on role players such as freshmen guard Jontel Evans, junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan and senior center Jerome Meyinsse to lead the team back into contention.
The defense elevated its performance, too, holding UAB (11-2) to 39 percent from the field in the second half after allowing the Blazers to connect on 55 percent of their shots in the first half. The difference was Evans, who displays an ability to play on-the-ball defense that is uncanny for a freshman.
"When you can have a guy who can heat up the ball to initiate your defense, that makes a difference," Bennett said. "But we know we had to win it with our defense, and guys made some plays down the stretch, which you have to have."
Those plays came from players throughout the roster, including a three-pointer by Evans when the shot clock was expiring, a four-point play by Zeglinski to give the Cavaliers a five-point lead with just more than seven minutes remaining and a pivotal assist from Landesberg to Mike Scott with 80 seconds remaining to take a 65-61 lead.
"Last season, I never would have saw that," said Landesberg, who scored 19 points and added six rebounds and four assists. "That pass definitely came from maturing and being more comfortable with the players."
One of those players is Scott, who had missed the previous three games with a high-ankle sprain. Scott still is not fully healthy, evidenced by playing only 23 minutes. But he scored 10 points with seven rebounds and proved that the Cavaliers are a more balanced team when he can play in the interior.
His return to the lineup comes at the right time for Virginia, which has just more than one week before it begins conference games on Jan. 9 at North Carolina State. The team's ACC prospects appeared slim before Wednesday, and much improvement remains if the Cavaliers are to even threaten to become a contender. But Wednesday's marquee win was the first of its kind for this year's group and for the Bennett era.
"It's something that just because you have a win over a top 25 team doesn't mean, 'Oh, yeah, we're set,' " Bennett said. "But it validates it a little bit. And it gives them some hope. These kids haven't had too many of those, so I was pretty thankful of that."