After concluding a successful out-of-conference schedule, the Hoos started ACC play off right, winning a 52-51 thriller over a tough Miami squad. UVA started fast and held off a second half Hurricane rally to improve to 14-1 on the season. The start is Virginia's best since the 1981-82 season (that team started 27-1...so we will put this stat on hold until we hit that mark).
UVA came out fired up, feeding off a raucous home crowd to hold a nine point halftime lead. They built the margin through stingy defense, holding the Canes to 17 points on 6 of 25 shooting. However, Miami didn't go down without a fight; they cut the lead to one with 10 to play, and kept the game within four points down the stretch.
After Mike Scott hit a layup to return the lead to four, a Durand Scott and-one play made the game 52-51 with 33 seconds to play. Joe Harris had a chance to extend that lead, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. The game and the hearts of Virginia fans were saved when Jontel Evans stuck with Scott (Durand, not Mike) and forced a miss on a layup as time expired.
As has been a common theme this year, Mike Scott led the Hoos with 23 points on nine of 20 shooting and eight rebounds. Scott was the only Cavalier to finish in double figures, as much of the team came out cold. Joe Harris had one of his poorer games of the year, struggling to get involved and finishing with three points; though the team's best overall free throw shooter, his bad miss in the endgame almost caused big trouble. Sammy Zeglinski's numbers were poor, but he was clutch down the stretch. One of his two made baskets was a three to quickly erase a Miami lead in the last 3 minutes, and he managed to tie up the ball in the game's final couple seconds to prevent a last gasp shot.
Though two of UVA's three big guns had off nights, the team leaned on its three first-years. Darion Atkins, Paul Jesperson, and Malcolm Brogdon played limited minutes, but combined to shoot 5 for 9. While Atkins's put-back dunk was surely the play that will make highlight reels, all three looked comfortable and mature on both sides of the ball. Tony Bennett agreed, saying the three "held their own defensively and gave us a great lift."
Coming into the game, we knew a key factor would be finding a way to stop Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson, Miami's giants in the frontcourt. Overall, results were strong, though not perfect. Early on, Virginia executed the post double perfectly, placing two men on the ball while rotating a guard down to cover the open big man. Miami adjusted their strategy during their second-half run; rather than forcing the ball inside, which had resulted in turnovers, they focused on passing the ball back outside to find their vacated guard. Thankfully, the defensive effort proved to be just good enough to win.
The importance of this win cannot be overstated, especially with two road games, one at Cameron Indoor, and a tough home matchup against Virginia Tech upcoming. The team has little margin for error, and taking care of business at home is vital; the coaches and players each acknowledged this point in postgame interviews. The fans certainly did their part, filling John Paul Jones Arena near capacity and remaining loud all night even though most students were out of town for Winter Break.
Barring an ACC Tournament matchup, that will be the last we see of Miami this season. And I would be relieved to avoid them there too, as the Hurricanes always seem to play us tough (that's the closest I will get to recalling last year's events). Expect them to make some noise this year and finish in the top half of the conference; as they learn Coach Larranaga's system, the Canes will only get better.
All eyes now turn to Thursday's showdown at Duke, obviously the Hoos's toughest test so far. With a couple teams in the 15-20 range in the AP Poll falling this week, UVA should enter ranked around 18th or 19th to face a Blue Devil squad solidly in the top 10. After enduring a stressful evening against Miami, Virginia fans have to be looking forward to this matchup; though any fan has this game marked down as a likely loss, its one the Hoos have the potential to compete in or even steal. (Remember, we gave them a run for their money last season!) The game Thursday will start at 9PM and be televised nationally on ESPN. We'll have more on the team's upcoming big opportunity right here on Streaking the Lawn throughout the week.