Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Nothing boring about this UVa win

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- What time did the game end Saturday? About 3:03 p.m.? Well, the first e-mail hit my inbox at 3:08. I knew it was coming, and I knew the subject line would read exactly what it did:

"Punchless Cavaliers are just plain boring."

That was the headline from my column on Thursday after Virginia's loss to Duke. I don't write the headlines, but I loved that one. It was direct; it was attention-grabbing, and I thought it captured perfectly what I'd written.

I'll concede that the column wasn't too deep. Essentially, it discussed how the Cavs play good defense but can't make shots, and because of that, they can't score nearly enough points, and because of that, they can't inject enough energy into this home arena to pull off an upset -- even when the conditions are conducive to one.


Dr. Millard in Radford, thank you for your e-mail. And thanks to the others, too. Because you're right. Boring is in the eye of the beholder, and the Cavaliers certainly weren't boring here Saturday when they defeated Virginia Tech 61-54 to complete a season sweep of their in-state rivals.

For the Hokies, this was the nightmare scenario: All those clanks from Wednesday's game (and many others -- UVa came into this one second-to-last in the ACC in field goal percentage) suddenly turned to swishes.

There was UVa freshman Joe Harris, pulling up and canning the first of his four 3-pointers, putting the crowd in a good mood early There was Sammy Zeglinski, waiting until the shot clock's end, then firing up a dead-eye longball.

There was Jontel Evans, hitting a deep fall-away jumper just before the half.

There was Assane Sene, cutting swiftly toward the net, collecting a sharp pass from Zeglinski and making the layup -- UVa's sixth successful field-goal attempt in a row.

And finally, the epitome of this game, which came with 11:59 to go in the second half. There was Zeglinski in the left corner, jacking one up with a hand in his face as he was falling backward. Zeglinski ultimately tumbled into the UVa bench as he watched the ball snap the net, prompting the biggest roar of the day at John Paul Jones Arena.

Yep. Boring as heck.

In all seriousness, though, that's my biggest regret with my column the other day. What I failed to mention was the reason the Wahoos play the way they do. They have to. Until the Cavaliers can recruit and develop a formidable inside game, this is how they're going to have to win. Defend like crazy. Drain the shot clock. Put the long ones up and hope you make them.

When they do, it can be trouble for an opponent. Ask Minnesota, which saw Virginia shoot a significantly better percentage from beyond the arc (77 percent) than from the field (47).

That happened in this game, too. After Zeglinski's bomb, which gave the Wahoos a 44-29 lead, the Cavaliers were hitting over 60 percent of their 3s but just 45 percent overall.

Doubling the demoralization for opponents is how long it takes for this to unfold. The Hokies would defend well for 28 seconds, then see all that effort disappear through the net on another long shot. More than a few times, the Hokies hung their heads or slumped their shoulders after such a moment. That stuff's contagious.

Defensively, the Cavs made a Tech team that had been on a scoring tear look out of sync. They pushed their defenders out early, forcing the Hokies to start every sequence about five feet further from the basket than they wanted to. The result was a lot of low-percentage jumpers, early turnovers and, ultimately, a deficit that was too large to overcome against a deliberate style.

That's where the Wahoos deserve the most credit. Even in their losses, they've defended like this, which shows that they're buying in to coach Tony Bennett's plan. That's a start.

For the Hokies, meanwhile, it once again comes down to the finish. At 17-8 and 7-5 in the ACC, they're spinning on the NCAA tournament's rim. Saturday's home game against Duke -- enormous already -- just became even bigger.

Whatever happens, I won't call it boring. Promise.

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