Virginia basketball hoping for increased contributions from Assane Sene, Jontel Evans

Virginia opponents have largely ignored guard Jontel Evans, challenging Duke's Mason Plumlee, top, and center Assane Sene.
Virginia opponents have largely ignored guard Jontel Evans, challenging Duke's Mason Plumlee, top, and center Assane Sene. (Steve Helber)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011

CHARLOTTESVILLE - For most of the season, opposing defenses have felt comfortable ignoring two-fifths of Virginia's starting lineup when the Cavaliers have the ball. Sure, they see junior center Assane Sene standing there - at 7 feet, he's hard to miss - and they notice 5-11 sophomore guard Jontel Evans scurrying about, but devoting full-time attention to either player has been considered an inefficient use of resources.

So opportunities have arisen for Sene and Evans to make an impact. The challenge for Coach Tony Bennett has been getting them to do so on a consistent basis.

Virginia (14-13, 5-8 ACC) enters Saturday's contest against Boston College (16-11, 6-7) with a chance to win a third straight game for the first time in almost 10 weeks, and Bennett understands that receiving significant offensive contributions from his starting lineup's two most disrespected players will make that task considerably easier.

During Wednesday's 62-56 win at Georgia Tech, Evans and Sene served as relevant annoyances to the Yellow Jackets, who had planned to devote their defensive attention to shutting down senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan, freshman guard Joe Harris and junior guard Sammy Zeglinski, the Cavaliers' three primary scorers.

But as the game progressed, Evans began knifing his way into the lane and Sene displayed an ability to corral the passes that came his way. Evans finished with nine points and seven assists, and Sene finished with nine points of his own. Neither player's stat line was overwhelming, but the contributions were exactly what Virginia needed.

"That's big for us, because sometimes they'll just hang on our perimeter guys, so if Jontel can get in there and either finish or slip it to Assane, the two guys [opposing defenders] usually stay off of, that really helps us," Bennett said. "Anything we can get from [Evans and Sene] is a bonus."

Evans and Sene became fixtures in the team's starting lineup long ago in large part because of their defensive acumen. Virginia's quickest and most persistent defender, Evans leads the team - and ranks No. 8 in the ACC - in steals (39), while Sene has averaged 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game in conference play.

A block by Sene on Georgia Tech guard Glen Rice Jr. midway through the first half Wednesday landed on the Top Plays segment of ESPN's "SportsCenter." Sene leapt from behind Rice and snatched the ball out of Rice's extended right hand just as it was leaving Rice's fingertips.

That's the sort of athleticism the Cavaliers have wanted from Sene on the offensive end.

Dropped passes have been a persistent issue for Sene, who grew up a soccer player in his native Senegal. Virginia's coaches have spent ample time working with Sene before and after practice and exhausted numerous methods - from playing catch with a football to scrunching his hands into fists in bowls of rice - in an attempt to improve his dexterity and hand strength.

Evans often is the one feeding Sene with passes in the post, though Evans's decision-making has at times been questionable this season. He has tallied four or more turnovers four times this season, though three of those performances came in the season's first two months.

There also have been nights when Evans gets carried away with his shot selection, such as his 3-for-14 shooting performance during Virginia's 70-67 loss at Boston College on Jan. 19. Evans's scoring average has increased during ACC play, though opposing defenders still show little respect for his ability to make a jump shot.

The improvement, for Evans and Sene, has been steady, much like it was Wednesday night.

"We was playing selfish" in the first half against Georgia Tech, Evans said. "I felt like I wasn't getting my teammates the ball and getting them easy shots like I usually do. I just wanted to come back out and do the things I'm capable of doing."

Evans tallied five of his seven assists after halftime.

Whether Virginia can continue to build on the progress it has demonstrated in the past two games may be just as dependent on its two ignored players as on the three whom opposing defenses know they have to contain.

"I think we're definitely going in the right direction," Zeglinski said. "The postseason is still not out of the question. We definitely have the NIT to play for, and anything can happen once we get into the ACC tournament."

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