Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: State rivals put on 2nd good show

BLACKSBURG The last heave had very little on it, and that's no surprise. All night, these teams had fought like demons, trading runs and command, spilling sweat on the Cassell Coliseum floor.

A full-court shot? Who has the arm left for that?

Nobody, that's who. And as the ball sailed harmlessly toward midcourt, Virginia's Mike Scott snatched it out of the air, dribbled it between his legs and went off to celebrate his team's pulsating, 61-59 victory over Virginia Tech.

These rivals have treated us twice this year - not always with the prettiest play, but with some of the most intense. The crowd here on Tuesday night and the one at John Paul Jones Arena exactly one month ago haven't been able to leave until the horns sounded, and that is how it should be.

In the end, the players left on the floor for Virginia included a guy with a bandaged hand (Joe Harris), a guy with a balky back (Malcolm Brogdon) and a freshman who's averaging fewer than eight minutes a game this season (Paul Jesperson). Such was the attrition in this one, as point guard Jontel Evans and shooting guard Sammy Zeglinski fouled out in the final minutes, leaving UVa without two of its most experienced players.

Tech coach Seth Greenberg champions nothing more than toughness, and his players were tough. Tony Bennett's Cavs, though, were just a little bit tougher. The ACC has only four teams with a winning road record, and UVa is among them for a reason.

The Cavs overcame an eight-point deficit in the second half and their own spotty foul shooting down the stretch. They won it with a big night from Scott, an encouraging offensive effort from the formerly slumping Zeglinski and some big baskets from Evans (including one back-breaking 3-pointer that probably should not have counted).

For Tech, this game had all the elements of the season as a whole, complete with the frustrating outcome. There are moments of great promise - eight Tech players who saw action in the first half scored at least one field goal - and stretches of tremendous agony.

The future of this program - freshmen Dorian Finney-Smith, Robert Brown, Marquis Rankin and C.J. Barksdale - all had their moments of success in the first half, the kind of hustle plays and big shots that elicit good thoughts about what might lie ahead.

But then there's the other side of Tech that we've seen far too often, the team that looks indecisive at best, confused at worst.

The Hokies went more than 10 minutes without a field goal in the second half, as the familiar halfcourt stagnation took hold. Credit the Cavaliers for some of that - they've held opponents under 40 percent shooting for the season - but also blame Tech's rushed 3-pointers and jump hooks in traffic.

Meanwhile, Zeglinski led the charge back for UVa, hitting a 3-pointer after the Hokies had built a 47-39 lead. That launched a 14-2 UVa run in which Zeglinski drilled another 3-pointer and hit two layups.

For UVa, that has to be the most encouraging part of all of this. The Cavaliers now have the inside track for a top-four seed in the ACC tournament, which would net them a bye.

But if they're to make anything of the postseason, they need their senior guard to fire from the perimeter with confidence like he did Tuesday.

Scott continues to dazzle. His 15 points in the first half kept UVa within striking distance; his jump hook while being fouled with 4:49 remaining gave UVa its largest lead at 56-49.

When it ended, Scott went to conduct a TV interview, then signed autographs for a few lingering UVa fans.

Everyone else headed off to their locker rooms, presumably exhausted from putting on another terrific show.

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