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Virginia eyes second win against Wolfpack

Team set to play N.C. State at home tonight, hopes to build on third-place ACC standing

Virginia Cavaliers G Sammy Zeglinski (13)..The Virginia Cavaliers men's basketball team defeated the Vermont Catamounts 90-72 at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, VA on November 11, 2007.
Virginia Cavaliers G Sammy Zeglinski (13)..The Virginia Cavaliers men's basketball team defeated the Vermont Catamounts 90-72 at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, VA on November 11, 2007.

After reaching what was perhaps the lowest point of their season, the Virginia men's basketball team - having let the possibility of a 4-1 start in the ACC slip away at the hands of arch-rival Virginia Tech - experienced the ecstasy of a rare win at Chapel Hill against North Carolina Sunday night, earning a relaxing ride home to Charlottesville.

"Guys were tired, 'Gladiator' was on," coach Tony Bennett said. "I don't know what meal we had, but guys had their headphones on and were either sleeping or watching 'Gladiator,' and we rolled in at about 2:30 in the morning."

The team will try to channel its inner warrior spirit as it returns to ACC action tonight against N.C. State (14-8, 2-5 ACC), which Virginia (13-6, 4-2 ACC) defeated in its first conference game, 70-62 Jan. 9 in Raleigh.

That win gave the Cavaliers their first road victory of the season and - at the very least - reflected the preseason ACC media poll, which ranked Virginia 11th and N.C. State 12th.

A Virginia victory was anything but inevitable in that contest, however, as the Wolfpack led by 10 points with just more than 12 minutes remaining in the game. It took a couple of timely three-pointers from sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski and junior guard Jeff Jones to spark a 12-3 Cavalier run that cut the deficit to one.

Virginia's efficient 5-for-11 shooting from behind the arc and exceptional performance at the free throw line - converting 19-of-20 attempts - powered the Cavaliers' double-digit comeback. N.C. State junior forward Tracy Smith fought hard for baskets and rebounds inside and led his team with 18 points and nine boards but was ultimately unable to prevent a Cavalier victory.

Since then, Virginia has gained further legitimacy in the ACC with notable wins against then-No. 20 Georgia Tech at home and the aforementioned 75-60 beat-down of North Carolina on the road, which vaulted the team into a tie for second place in the conference standings. But although the latter victory felt particularly sweet for Virginia, as the program had not tasted success in Chapel Hill for eight years, Bennett emphasized the need to cool down from the elation that had reinvigorated his team just three days prior.

"The challenge will be to bring ourselves down from the high of that," Bennett said. "That'll be a great challenge to play against a team that we were fortunate to beat, when we played N.C. State the first time."

Indeed, though the Wolfpack currently dwell in the cellar of the ACC standings, it did pick up a road win against then-No. 25 Florida State following its loss to Virginia and notched its marquee victory of the season at home against then-No. 6 Duke Jan. 20. Five players scored in double figures for N.C. State during that game - a marked improvement from its home loss to the Cavaliers, during which Smith and senior forward Dennis Horner were the only significant offensive contributors.

And though Bennett is aware of N.C. State's progression, he said Virginia must make sure its own house is in order before the team can begin to prepare for its opponent.

"At this point in the year, it's so much about yourself," Bennett said. "You have a grasp having played the other team and there are certainly going to be wrinkles that each will put in and adjustments will be made."

One such adjustment may be increased playing time for senior guard Calvin Baker, who, after not even traveling to Winston-Salem two weeks ago when Virginia played Wake Forest and riding the bench the entire game against Virginia Tech, logged 18 minutes against North Carolina Sunday. His sole basket of the game came with 11:05 remaining in the first half when he nailed a three from the left wing to give Virginia an 18-15 lead. He finished the game with one assist and three turnovers.

"Against Carolina, I thought we needed [Baker's] experience," Bennett said. "When he was out there, there was a couple miscommunications early, but I thought he steadied us and made some good decisions."

How Bennett splits playing time among his quartet of guards - Baker, freshman Jontel Evans, sophomore Sammy Zeglinski and junior Mustapha Farrakhan - should be an interesting storyline both during tonight's game and for the rest of the season.

Farrakhan in particular has struggled as of late, making 23.8 percent from the field on 5-for-21 shooting during the last four games.

Whether Bennett elects to stick with his best on-the-ball defender in Evans, along with the conference leader in three-point field goal percentage in Zeglinski, or opts for a more experienced backcourt remains to be seen.

But if Evans and Co. continue to disrupt the opponent's offensive rhythm with tenacious defense and sophomore guard Sylven Landesberg, who was named ACC Player of the Week for his 29-point effort against the Tar Heels, continues to light up the scoreboard, the Wolfpack may find difficulty in exploiting any individual matchups in Charlottesville.