With Cavalier hoops legend Ralph Sampson cheering alongside more than 10,500 fans at John Paul Jones Arena, the Virginia men's basketball team helped the ACC draw first blood in the 13th installment of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon posted a career-best 16 points and senior forward Mike Scott paced the Cavaliers with 18 points and 11 rebounds as Virginia outmuscled No. 14 Michigan, 70-58.
Although the Wolverines (5-2) claimed third place in the highly competitive Maui Invitational - and knocked off then-No. 8 Memphis and UCLA in the process - oddsmakers favored Virginia (6-1) by 3.5 points at tip-off. They appeared woefully off-base, however, as the Cavaliers' offensive pulse remained at a critically low level for much of the first half.
Junior guard Sammy Zeglinski opened Virginia's scoring account after corralling a rebound, saving the ball from going out of bounds and then draining a transition trey, but Virginia shooters failed to find their rhythm against the Michigan zone defense and stumbled to just nine points during the game's first 10 minutes.
"I thought we were getting some pretty good looks, we just didn't knock them down," Zeglinski said. "I was struggling on my shot a little bit, and so was [sophomore guard] Joe [Harris]."
During a first-half TV timeout, the Virginia dance team's performance to Michael Jackson's "Bad" proved ironically fitting, as the "King of Pop's" lyrics perfectly described the Cavaliers' paltry offensive output.
With star sophomore shooting guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. sidelined with foul trouble, however, the Wolverines similarly struggled. Michigan managed only eight first-half field goals but did just enough behind senior guard Zack Novak's eight first-half points to take a 19-14 lead with 3:21 left before halftime.
The teams traded misses before Harris suddenly and single-handedly broke Virginia's 4-of-20 slump from the field and jolted the dormant John Paul Johns Arena crowd back to life with a three-point bomb. Harris then stole the ball and poured in two more free throws to even the score at 19 apiece with less than two minutes remaining.
An airball at the charity stripe by Michigan redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan sustained the frenzied Virginia fans, and a Zeglinski three and Brogdon lay-in helped Virginia close the half on a 10-4 run and take an improbable 24-23 lead into the break.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett's locker room message preached that his players' continued trust in their shooting touch would open up the game as both teams tired. His words proved prescient as the two previously impotent offenses - perhaps inspired by a halftime ceremony retiring Sampson's iconic number 50 jersey and the 2,228 points which went with it - engaged in a back-and-forth scoring spree for most of the second half.
Michigan jumped out to a five-point lead, but Harris nailed a jumper as Virginia closed to 39-36. A layup and three-pointer from Brogdon then bookended two points from Novak to tie the score at 41 with 11:30 remaining.
"We had [Brogdon] as the seventh guy that we had to worry about on this team and he was excellent today," Michigan coach Jim Beilein said. "He's a tough, hardnosed kid and he played well."
The Cavaliers rode their newfound scoring touch, a heavy dose of Bennett's stifling pack-line defense and the raucous home crowd to two consecutive baskets by Scott to force Beilein to take a timeout with the worried Wolverines trailing 45-41 with about nine minutes remaining.
"I thought in the second half we limited them to one-and-done, and they had to go late in the shot clock," Bennett said. "They're a very potent offensive team ... I thought the guys really started battling and making them shoot those contested shots, and then coming back and rebounding."
Virginia continued to feed Scott's hot hand and the senior big man didn't disappoint, quickly drawing a foul and then sending an eagle-eye pass cross-court to Brogdon, who swished the wide-open three. Scott then stretched the Cavaliers' lead to nine on a jumper with 7:25 remaining, forcing another Beilein timeout to stop the carnage.
"We tried to really get Mike [Scott] touches," Bennett said. "The times he didn't score, he got some kick-outs, and that's when some guys hit some big shots ... He's a good passer out of there, so if you decide to come at him, he usually finds some holes."
The temporary respite didn't re-awaken Michigan and it certainly didn't hinder the Cavaliers' co-top scorer Harris, who rebounded a Hardaway miss and then immediately cocked and converted a three-pointer off a Zeglinski helper for a 53-41 advantage.
Virginia's suffocating defense held Michigan scoreless for nearly six and a half minutes as the Wolverines missed eight consecutive shots from the floor. Michigan crawled to within seven behind a Hardaway jumper and a trey by senior guard Stu Douglass, but then Virginia's snipers hit their mark on consecutive shots. Brogdon made no mistake when senior center Assane Sene snared an offensive board off the freshman's initial try from deep, and Harris sank his third deep ball of the game to stretch Virginia's lead to 59-46 with just under four minutes remaining.
"We were getting some good looks, even early," Bennett said. "When they'd score, they'd run their one-three-one zone and guys were getting the rhythm looks. You've got to take them and shoot them with confidence. It can be contagious."
In a similar and now infamous late-game situation last season, Virginia led Miami by double digits with a mere minute remaining in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The Cavaliers failed to close the game out, however, and instead panicked, crumbled and gift-wrapped a stunning 69-62 comeback victory for the Hurricanes.
Last night, in another primetime game and against an even more dangerous opponent, however, the Cavaliers played intelligent and composed basketball during the game's final minutes. It was instead the ranked Wolverines who tossed up numerous three-point prayers, rushed their offensive possessions and saw their top-dog scorer, Hardaway, held to just five points on 2-of-9 shooting from the floor.
Although Bennett wasn't smiling after Brogdon, Scott and Evans all split trips to the charity stripe in the waning minutes, Virginia hit enough free throws late to keep any potential Michigan magic at bay. Then-injured Mike Scott wasn't on the court for the disastrous Miami defeat, but the senior remembered enough to forgo a wide-open layup for the chance to burn a few more seconds off the clock.
It was just one win, but in besting Beilein's Wolverines, Scott and the Cavaliers appear to have taken a big step toward washing away the bitter taste of their 2010 end and cementing a promising identity for the rest of this young season.
"One game doesn't make a season," Bennett said. "We'll certainly grow from it and be confident from it. I kept telling them, 'Our principles are humility and passion.' Humility ... Know your identity out there. And play your heart out - passion ... I think that's going to be the key for our team"