Virginia forward Mike Scott does a lot of things on the court that will make this season’s Cavaliers squad a more dynamic, multi-dimensional and formidable group. But there will be times when Scott has to come out of the game for one reason or another, and the rest of Virginia’s players need to know they’ll be just fine without him.
During Tuesday night’s 69-48 win over Winthrop, the Cavaliers took a stride forward in that regard. For nearly six minutes in the second half, Scott sat on the bench while his teammates played stingy defense and efficient offense without him. When he subbed out, Virginia led by one. When he came back in, the Cavaliers led by nine. Their lead would grow from there.
Scott may have tallied a game-high 18 points and eight rebounds, but he was not the hero Tuesday night. Junior guard Jontel Evans tallied a career-high 17 points – 14 of which came in the second half – and senior center Assane Sene added 10. Sene and sophomore forward Akil Mitchell provided solid interior defense and ample rebounding during that second-half stretch when Scott was out.
The reason Scott stayed out for so long?
“Sometimes when there’s continuity and a team’s playing well, you stick with that group,” Coach Tony Bennett said.
It was an encouraging sign for the Cavaliers that that group doesn’t always have to include their preseason all-ACC fifth-year senior forward.
1) Jontel Evans. During a timeout in the second half, Virginia assistant Ritchie McKay pulled Evans aside and asked him if he wanted to be a good point guard or a great point guard. Evans chose the latter. In that case, McKay told Evans, he needed to penetrate into the lane for layups, let Winthrop foul, make free throws and win the game. “Don’t do anything out of character,” McKay said. And then Evans went out and obliged all of McKay’s instructions. After picking up two early fouls, Evans logged just nine minutes in the first half. In the second half, Evans scored 14 points in 14 minutes. On the night, he shot 5 of 6 from the field – which is promising for a guy who shot 39 percent last season – and made all five of his free throw attempts to finish with 17 points. With just less than two minutes remaining and Virginia up by 19, Evans stole the ball and raced downcourt. He was completely in the clear and could have capped the night with a dunk. Instead, he remembered McKay’s orders. He decelerated and scored a layup.
2) Second-half defense. It’s not like Virginia played poor defense in the first half. Winthrop scored just 22 points and shot 31.8 percent from the field before halftime. But in the second half, Bennett said he thought his players attacked Winthrop’s ball screens more effectively, imposed their will more assertively and “outlasted them.” Indeed, there was an 8-minute 26-second stretch in the second half in which Winthrop scored only two points. The Eagles scored four points in the final 10:30 of the game. During that period, Winthrop shot 2 for 8 from the field.
3) Free-throw shooting. Virginia set a program record by making 19 of 19 free throws Tuesday night. The previous mark had been the 16 for 16 free-throw shooting performance the Cavaliers turned in against South Carolina on Jan. 8, 1965. Free throw shooting was a point of emphasis in the offseason – getting to the charity stripe more often and then making the shots – after Virginia shot 66.5 percent from the free throw line during ACC play last year. The Cavaliers by far attempted the fewest number of free throws (245) during conference play in 2010-11, averaging 15.3 per game. Against Winthrop, Scott made 6 of 6 free throws, Evans made 5 of 5 and Sene made 4 of 4.
1) Attacking zone defenses. Winthrop operated often out of a zone defense, particularly in the first half, and that initially seemed to throw off the Cavaliers. Bennett said his players were tentative and stagnant along the perimeter in the first half. At halftime, he implored them to get the ball into the paint more frequently, either by passing into the high post or penetrating into the lane. Bennett said zone defenses typically are more effective early in the season because most teams practice primarily against man-to-man during the preseason. But the Cavaliers adjusted. After shooting 34.8 percent in the first half, Virginia shot 60.9 percent in the second half.
2) Three-point shooting. This, too, got better for the Cavaliers as the game progressed, but Virginia’s shooting struggles from beyond the arc also were reflective of a separate issue: the off night by sophomore guard Joe Harris. After missing 6 of 7 three-point attempts from three-point range in the first half, Virginia made 5 of 11 from long range after halftime and ended up shooting an adequate 33.3 percent from beyond the arc on the night. Harris’s shot, though, never seemed to fully recover. Harris – Virginia’s best long-range shooter last season – shot 2 for 8 from beyond the arc and 2 for 10 overall on the night. Harris is a highly skilled shooter, and this likely was just one night in which his shot wasn’t falling. It happens to every player. But given how valuable Harris was to the Cavaliers offense last season, Virginia likely would prefer those nights occur infrequently.
3) Sprained ankles. Fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski has missed Virginia’s first two games of the season with a sprained ankle, and while Evans and freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon have done a fine job orchestrating the offense in Zeglinski’s absence, there were times Tuesday night when Zeglinski’s veteran on-court presence would have helped. Bennett said he hopes Zeglinski will be ready to play this weekend at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, when Virginia will play three games in four days. “You could see we were a little uneasy [Tuesday] and needed a calming hand or some maturity out there in that first half, and certainly Sammy brings that,” Bennett said.