RALEIGH, N.C. — There were several reasons why Virginia should not have exited RBC Center with a victory Saturday. The Cavaliers were harassed on the boards all night, made just four field goals in the second half and struggled to keep up with North Carolina State’s athletic lineup.
And yet, when the Wolfpack’s last shot fell well short and the final horn sounded, Virginia was on top, 61-60. The No. 19 Cavaliers (17-3, 4-2 ACC) departed on a bus back to Charlottesville soon thereafter, but not before Coach Tony Bennett provided a pointed observation regarding his team’s latest victory.
“I think I’ll watch this tape and scratch my head,” Bennett said. “But we’ll take it.”
Collectively, Virginia was neither as tall nor as athletic as N.C. State (15-7, 4-3), and that complicated matters significantly for Bennett’s squad. But when it needed to, Virginia’s hallmark defense came through.
With 45 seconds to play, N.C. State guard Scott Wood collected an offensive rebound and made a three-pointer from the corner to cut Virginia’s lead to one.
Fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski missed a long jump shot on the Cavaliers’ ensuing possession, and the Wolfpack secured the rebound. This was one of the night’s central themes.
Prior to Saturday, Virginia had been out-rebounded only five times this season, and never by more than six boards. But against the Wolfpack — whose top six players all stand at least 6 feet 5 — Virginia was out-rebounded, 42-25. N.C. State owned an 18-5 edge on the offensive glass. Wolfpack forward Richard Howell finished with 18 rebounds (nine offensive).
“They were really physical,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said. “I mean, borderline dirty. I’ll go so far as to say that. They’ve got a really big, athletic team, and they just kind of beat us up on the boards.”
Mitchell and freshman forward Darion Atkins — two of Virginia’s three healthy post players — were plagued by foul trouble, and at times the Cavaliers employed a four-guard look. But as the game progressed, Bennett had little choice but to stick mostly with a traditional three-guard, two-forward lineup in the face of N.C. State’s superior size.
Such was the case on the game’s final play. Out of a timeout with 7.8 seconds remaining on the game clock, N.C. State guard Lorenzo Brown came off a screen that delayed his defender, junior guard Jontel Evans. But Mitchell picked up Brown and shuffled in front of him along the perimeter until Evans could recover.
Evans eventually forced Brown into a contested three-point attempt at the buzzer that ended up an air ball.
“We got sped up in the beginning,” Evans said. “But as the game wore on, we ran our stuff to score, we were patient and we were poised out there.”
Virginia led by seven at halftime after shooting 60 percent from the field before the break. Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott finished with a game-high 18 points, and Zeglinski made 4 of 5 three-pointers to tally 12.
“It was a little bit of a role reversal,” Bennett said. “Our offense kept us in it in the first half, or gave us the lead, and our defense let us down. And then I thought in the second half our defense was better — not great, but was better — and our offense struggled. . . . When you’re on the road, you try to steal one. And that’s what we did.”