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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 02/24/2011

Virginia 62, Georgia Tech 56: Three up, three down

By Steve Yanda

Virginia's 62-56 win Wednesday at Georgia Tech marked the first time since early January that the Cavaliers had claimed consecutive victories. On Saturday, Virginia can claim ownership of an actual winning streak should the Cavaliers defeat Boston College -- which fell to Miami, 73-64, on Wednesday -- at home.

This season stopped being about wins and losses for Virginia a long time ago, but what accomplishments like an extended stretch of positive play can do for a team like the Cavaliers is reinforce the notion that their system works. Coach Tony Bennett wondered allowed following Virginia's loss to Duke on Feb. 16 whether his overarching message to the players -- that they were getting close -- was growing stale.

Games like the ones Virginia played against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech over the past five days ensure that Bennett's message remains viable. And that's no insignificant thing at the backstretch of what has been an exasperating season.

"I think we're definitely going in the right direction," junior guard Sammy Zeglinski said Wednesday. "I wish we could get a couple of those games back that we let slip away. We'd be in a little bit different position, but we'll just keep taking it one game at a time because we can still -- 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. We're really excited and looking forward to the challenge."

Three Up:

1) Joe Harris. Remember back on Jan. 8 when Virginia trailed North Carolina by two with less than a minute to play and Harris passed up a semi-open three-pointer? Well, Harris found himself in a similar situation Wednesday. This time -- with 25 seconds left and Virginia clinging to a three-point lead -- Harris took the shot and made it, providing the Cavaliers a six-point cushion that held up. Harris, who made his first two three-pointers of the night before missing his next six, finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. He wasn't great for most of the night, but when his team needed him to step up, he did so. And that's a mark of improvement over the Harris we saw grow timid in crunch time about seven weeks ago.

2) Zone defense. With just less than nine minutes to play, Georgia Tech called a timeout. At the time, the Yellow Jackets led by two. In Virginia's huddle, Bennett called for "double fist," which is what the Cavaliers call their 2-3 zone defense. Sophomore guard Jontel Evans looked at Zeglinski and asked, "What's double fist?" Zeglinski quickly provided Evans a reminder.

Wednesday marked the first time Virginia had operated out of a zone defense this season. Bennett first discussed with his assistants the possibility of running a zone defense in early January, right around the time it was decided that senior forward Mike Scott would undergo season-ending ankle surgery. Without Scott, Bennett knew the Cavaliers would start operating more frequently out of a four-guard lineup, and he thought the zone defense would be more opportune under those circumstances. But at that time the Virginia coaching staff elected to stay the course and stick with the man-to-man defense for which Bennett is known.

The Cavaliers began practicing the 2-3 zone defense in small dosages occassionally during practice in late January, just so Bennett would have another option at his disposal in case the need arose.

The need arose Wednesday night. Georgia Tech guard Iman Shumpert was running senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan ragged along the baseline. Shumpert was creating separation and getting open looks on the perimeter as Farrakhan -- who was battling an upset stomach all night -- lagged behind.

Bennett had Virginia switch to the 2-3 zone at that point in an attempt to get Georgia Tech to stand still and so that the Cavaliers could pass Shumpert off from defender to defender as he ran through the zone. Virginia employed the zone for six or seven straight defensive possessions and then Bennett went back to it sporadically the rest of the night.

In the seven minutes that followed that Georgia Tech timeout, the Yellow Jackets scored one basket.

"It was crazy," Evans said. "I never thought we would go to that. We're always stressing (man-to-man defense). It was kind of wierd to run zone, but it worked. We got a couple turnovers. We made them take shots that they wasn't comfortable with. We paid attention to detail, and it worked out for us tonight."

3) Jontel Evans and Assane Sene. These two players don't get a lot of respect when Virginia possesses the ball. Frequently, opposing defenders will zone away from Evans and Sene to provide extra attention to one of Virginia's shooters. This, as you might imagine, creates problems for the Cavaliers. And that's why the performances Virginia received from Evans and Sene on Wednesday night were so encouraging. Sene scored nine points on 4 of 7 shooting. Evans scored nine points and tallied seven assists. Each was enough of an offensive threat that Georgia Tech could not completely dismiss them, which made it easier for guys like Harris and Farrakhan to find open looks. And on defense, both players were solid. Sene grabbed seven rebounds (five defensive) and tallied two blocks and two steals. Evans recorded a pair of steals, as well.

Three Down:

1) Rebounding. Georgia Tech outrebounded Virginia, 40-27. The Yellow Jackets' edge on the offensive boards was even more striking: 13-4. Georgia Tech tallied 11 second chance points; Virginia scored two. By now, Virginia followers understand that the frontcourt is not an area of strength for the Cavaliers, but Virginia had done well in recent games in staying competitive on the boards. That was not the case Wednesday night. Sene and Harris each grabbed seven rebounds, but those two got little help from anyone else in securing rebounds. Freshman forward Akil Mitchell grabbed one rebound in 19 minutes. At this point in the season, he simply has to be more productive than that.

2) Rotation. Five Virginia players logged at least 31 minutes against Georgia Tech. Only six played more than seven minutes. Virginia can get away with that for one game -- especially when that game is against a bad Yellow Jackets squad -- but moving forward, the Cavaliers have got to be able to rely on at least one more player on their bench. Freshman guard K.T. Harrell played six minutes Wednesday. He missed the only shot he took and recorded no points, no rebounds, one assist and three personal fouls. Senior forward Will Sherrill played seven minutes. He scored five points and grabbed a rebound.

3) Having to play through pain. Sherrill gets a little bit of slack because he's continuing to recover from the fractured fibula he suffered in his right leg Nov. 29 at Minnesota. He missed five games after initially suffering the injury. Then he returned to the court and received inconsistent playing time until re-aggravating the injury Feb. 5 at Miami. Sherrill had sat out three straight games prior to Wednesday night, and it's clear Sherrill has not completely recovered. He said his legs feels "a lot better" now than it did when he first returned to the court Dec. 30 against Iowa State, but "a lot better" seems to be a relative description.

When asked what Sherrill's pain level was when he was on the court Wednesday night, the player responded: "On the court, it's around eight or nine. It's pretty high, but they gave me some pain meds and stuff like that, so I'm just trying to tough it out."

When asked to describe what his leg felt like when he's on the court, Sherrill said: "I'll be running and trying to plant and stop, it's like having a knife stuck in there and just gets twisted. It doesn't feel good."

Sherrill should be commended for making the effort he is, given the pain he appears to be in. It's unfortunate that a senior that otherwise would be a significant contributor to the team is forced to ride out the final games of his collegiate career under such limiting circumstances.

By Steve Yanda  | February 24, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Men's Basketball  
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Next: Boston College 63, Virginia 44: Three up, three down

Comments

This team has done some amazing things considering how several starters have been out, playing with an injury, or in the case of their team leader, starter and top scorer PF Mike Scott gone since game 10. They could have easily folded up their ten and just showed up, but instead they have stormed back and could finish above .500. The loss of Mike Scott has created a mixed blessing with Sene transforming into a contributor, virtually doubling his rebounds and point output. This guy should get most improved award by his coach at season end! Loved the highlight block and grab at one end, then when he was blocked on one series, he goes down the other end and gets a get that out of here monster block/rejection on Miller that blocked him one play earlier.

On Sene's defense, he was called for a foul at the end of the game, but if you look at the so call foul, Sene comes out plays really aggressive and actually contorts his body to avoid fouling and the shooter does some acting, along with spreading wide after he releases to make contact.

I hope Tony wasn't mad with Sene, and instead at the ref for calling such a tic tac call on an obvious acting, spread contact by the shooter. Yet the last 3 point shot by Harris in the corner, you can see Sammy being pushed hard backwards to the floor less than a few feet away from Joe Harris shooting the three. The GT player didn't even hold back on the push and their was no call!

Really like what Tony has done with this team and how close we have been to winning three other games we lost in the last two minutes of the game. With Scott, hopefully coming back next year(hope they approve his medical red shirt), along with Sene coming on strong underneath, James Johnson ready, several good freshman/sophomores next year in Harris, Harrell, and Mitchell, along with Sammy, Evans and a cast of quality new comers, I see this team being in the top six in the ACC next year.

I am a diehard Cavalier fan and I am pleased with the direction of this team and the future of this program! Tony will have us in the top 5, ACC wise, consistently in the next year or so! This team could have folded and instead they are playing one game at a time with a purpose!
Love the character and heart of big Sene and his interviews of being excited and the team charged up! This was a guy that was all but wrote off at the beginning of the year and was some question if he would be back next year. I think he will be one of the key guys next year in our quest to close in the top 5 in the ACC. With Scott hopefully returning, this could really free Sene up for continued improvement in his Senior year!

I believe they will finish above .500; I'll be pulling for them! Go HOOS!

Posted by: wcdun1 | February 24, 2011 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Agreed on all fronts, wcdun. For a team picked to finish 10th in the ACC, they've overachieved in spite of some major injuries and setbacks. Bennett's defensive strategies are clearly working, and once they get Scott back, his presence in the post and on the boards will add a whole new dimension to the offense.

An NIT berth this year would be a good step towards the NCAAs in 2012. It's not out of reach...

Posted by: 2kHoo | February 25, 2011 12:45 PM | Report abuse

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