Monday, December 06, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: New Wahoos seize Cassell

BLACKSBURG -- Virginia junior Sammy Zeglinski looked around the makeshift players' lounge at all the young faces. Joe Harris. KT Harrell. Will Regan. Billy Baron. Akil Mitchell.

All of them had played against Virginia Tech on Sunday night -- on the road, in their first ACC game. Harris was on the floor a whopping 35 minutes. Harrell and Mitchell had combined for 30.

And not one of them was fazed.

"It's taken us four years to come in and get a win here," Zeglinski said with a smile. "Then the freshmen just come in and get a win. I'm a little bit jealous about that."

And if he's a little excited, too? Well, he should be.

UVa's 57-54 upset of the Hokies would have seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago. That's when the Cavaliers embarked on a six-game road trip with hopes of building chemistry and learning a few lessons that could help them in January and February.

But wins? Even the most ardent UVa fan could look at that slate and see there wouldn't be many. When that Washington score in the Maui Invitational -- Huskies 106, Cavaliers 63 -- scrolled on the screens here in the mainland, the natural reaction was to start bracing yourself for another long year in Charlottesville.

But suddenly, this. Three wins in four games. An 18-point blowout of Oklahoma. A shocker at ranked Minnesota. And Sunday, the Wahoos' first victory in Blacksburg in the past five tries.

"I just want them to keep striving for good basketball," second-year coach Tony Bennett said. "I always tell them, 'Just keep getting better.' That's kind of our battle cry. And I think they have improved."

They have. Nobody in a Virginia uniform has been better lately than senior Mike Scott, who abused the Hokies' big men to the tune of 21 points and 13 rebounds. He's got to be the fulcrum this season for UVa to have a chance, and the Cavaliers have done a better job settling the pace and making sure he gets his touches in the half-court set.

But they're getting plenty of contributions elsewhere, too. Center Assane Sene hit two key layups down the stretch. Mustapha Farrakhan followed up his hot shooting in Minnesota with a productive all-around performance -- nine points, five rebounds, five assists, no turnovers, two steals and two blocks.

"And the freshmen aren't really playing like freshman any more," Zeglinski said. "They're obviously talented players, but just being able to stay under control on the road at Blacksburg, it's really exciting to see what they can do the rest of the season."

Harris, in particular, is going to be a good one. The 6-foot-6 guard out of the state of Washington already has four double-digit scoring games this season, including a 10-point effort against the Hokies.

"The last few games, especially, I think we've played closer to what coach expects of us," Harris said. "We know that for us to be successful this year, we need to buy into the coach's mindset."

Bennett's tenets won't change even if outside expectations do.

"We have a ways to go," the coach said. "I'm real on that. Just watch that Washington game. I've just got to pop that tape back in ... I understand where we're at.

"But I tell our guys [that to play] good basketball, age doesn't matter. When you tap into it, when you understand who you are as a team -- and I think our team's beginning to understand that more -- you'll have a chance to compete."

That chance is here. Much earlier than expected.

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