CHARLOTTESVILLE — Hidden behind a curtain of turnovers and missed shots for 13 periods this season, the complete version of the Virginia men’s basketball team unveiled itself in the second half of Tuesday night’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge match-up against No. 14 Michigan.
After a first half in which the Cavaliers at one point went seven minutes without scoring a basket, Virginia made half its shots after the intermission and stormed to a 70-58 victory that carried short- and long-term benefits. The Wolverines (5-2) stood as the first — and likely the only — high-quality opponent the Cavaliers (6-1) will face in nonconference play.
And following a shaky performance against a middling field at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier this month, Virginia needed some early re-enforcement that it was on track to meet its objective of reaching the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a little different than football,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “One game doesn’t make a season, but it was an opportunity, a great barometer for us. Where are we at? . . . We needed to see where we were at.”
In the second half Tuesday, the Cavaliers were about as close to where they would prefer to be at the end of November as they could have hoped for. Virginia — which committed 19 turnovers in a Nov. 18 loss to Texas Christian and 16 more in a win over Drake two days later — recorded just two giveaways in the second half, which included a 19-2 run against the Wolverines.
The Cavaliers produced 16 assists to eight turnovers, which was encouraging for Bennett considering his squad entered the night with more turnovers than assists on the season.
A significant factor in Virginia’s improved ball security was a relatively healthy and fully available Sammy Zeglinski. The fifth-year senior guard has been dealing with a nagging ankle injury since Nov. 5, but against Michigan, Zeglinski logged six assists and one turnover in 34 minutes.
“We have a lot of shooters that can knock down shots,” said Zeglinski, who shot 3 of 10 from three-point range. “A lot of mine weren’t falling, and I was just trying to affect the game in other ways, getting in the paint and kicking out to my shooters and getting the ball to [fifth-year senior forward] Mike [Scott] and letting the offense run through him. We were pretty balanced tonight.”
Indeed, Scott, a preseason all-ACC first-team selection, had been the predictable focal point of Virginia’s offense during the first six games, especially since the Cavaliers entered shooting 32.5 percent from three-point range.
Scott once again drew considerable attention from opposing defenders, often being double- or triple-teamed in the post, but the difference, in the second half at least, was that the open shooters he found on kick-out passes finally started making some shots.
Scott finished with 18 points (to go with 11 rebounds), and so did sophomore guard Joe Harris, who made 4 of 8 shots after the intermission. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon chipped in by connecting on 3 of 4 three-point attempts and tallying 16 points. Virginia made a season-high nine three-pointers.
Though Virginia held its seventh straight opponent to fewer than 60 points, it wasn’t as if Michigan (44 percent from the field; 45.5 percent from three-point range) shot the ball poorly. The difference was that whereas the Cavaliers (10 offensive rebounds) were securing second chances on offense, the Wolverines (three) were not.
Michigan recently defeated No. 22 Memphis and UCLA and hung tough in a loss to No. 3 Duke at the Maui Invitational, but found itself without much recourse against a Virginia squad that finally found an offense to match its imposing defense.
“They hadn’t seen a defense like ours,” Scott said. “That’s no disrespect to the teams at Maui, but we watched the film and they didn’t focus on defense like us.”