Virginia 62, Georgia Tech 56: Three up, three down
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."
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.
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.
| February 24, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Men's Basketball
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