Sometimes, the best offense is a good defense. Or at least that was coach Tony Bennett's philosophy as his men's basketball team prepared for Virginia Tech Saturday.\nLast Wednesday, the Cavaliers held Duke to a season-low 56 points but only managed 41 points themselves as they shot 28.6 percent from the field. Bennett's solution?\n"We focused more defensively - as crazy as that sounds," he said. "I said, 'Just take good shots, let the game come, be patient.'"
Perhaps the crazier thing is that it worked. Virginia (13-13, 4-8 ACC) limited a red-hot Hokie offense to just 54 points en route to a seven-point victory at home. Virginia Tech (17-8, 7-5 ACC) had combined for 193 points in its previous two games, but scored its fewest points since Dec. 5, when it lost 57-54 to Virginia.
"Before the game, I said, '[Virginia Tech is] leading the league in scoring in the ACC; you have no chance if you get into a race-horse game with them," Bennett said. "I said there's no shame in [defense], execute it, and I think that was the key in our first victory against them too."
Seventeen minutes into the game, Virginia certainly had embraced that strategy. The Cavaliers led a defensive slugfest 18-17 before junior guard Sammy Zeglinski drilled a three with 3:12 remaining and opened the offensive floodgates. Sophomore guard Jontel Evans added another three and freshman forward Akil Mitchell chipped in a layup. Evans then nailed a fadeaway jumper with four seconds left in the half to give the Cavaliers a 28-23 lead and ignite the home fans at John Paul Jones Arena.
"That might be the loudest I've ever heard JPJ, and it was fun," Mitchell said. "You live to play in front of crowds like that and make your fans happy."
The Cavaliers fed off that energy and opened the second half with a 16-4 run. Zeglinski punctuated that stretch with a three as he was falling down to beat the shot clock.\n"Maybe we should tell him to shoot them like that all the time," Bennett said of the shot. "Points are hard to come by for us, so whenever we can get them ... that's a cushion for us. [Zeglinski] does have a knack for hitting unconventional ones."
The Cavaliers owned a commanding 44-29 lead, but have battled injuries and second-half collapses this season - two issues that looked capable of derailing the team Saturday. With 14:09 left, the team's leading scorer, senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan, fell to the ground writhing with pain. Already short-handed after injuries to senior forwards Mike Scott and Will Sherrill, Virginia looked unable to sustain another loss.
"We were going to start pulling people out of the stands to play," Farrakhan said. "I felt really bad, I really didn't want anybody to see me like that, to see that much pain ... [but it was] the second half, I was just like, 'I want to be doing anything I can to be out there and help my team, in a rivalry game, I should be out there.'"
Farrakhan returned to the game four minutes after exiting it - just in time to fight off a late Hokie run. Virginia Tech's star senior guard Malcolm Delaney knocked down back-to-back threes to cut Virginia's lead to three with 7:46 remaining. The Cavaliers had lost five late leads already this season and feared a sixth collapse.
"This year, it's been kind of hard for us to finish out the game, so that definitely has to be in the back of your mind," Farrakhan admitted.
Farrakhan, however, nailed a three of his own 23 seconds after Delaney's and then added a jumper and a layup to put the Cavaliers up 54-46 with 50 seconds to play. In total, Farrakhan scored 10 points after he returned to the court from injury.
"Finally, he gave a pass fake, a shot fake, and got into the crease of the zone and pulled up," Bennett said of Farrakhan's play down the stretch. "I thought [he] stepped up. He did a nice job bouncing back after he got the wind knocked out of him."
Farrakhan, freshman guard Joe Harris and Zeglinski all made free throws during the final minute and finished the game with 16, 15 and 10 points, respectively.
Defensive-minded Virginia toughened up to close the game and cement the 61-54 win.
Although the Cavaliers may be disappointed in their 4-8 ACC record, a sweep against in-state rival Virginia Tech offered the team a sense of redemption.
"I had never been able to go down there and get a win, and then just coming back here and being able to get a win, it feels good," Farrakhan said.