That giant gust of wind that hit Charlottesville this afternoon, around 3:15, wasn't a forerunner of the snowstorm bearing down on central Virginia. It was the collective exhale of a sell-out crowd exiting John Paul Jones Arena after their Virginia Cavaliers put together their best half of basketball this season, as they pulled away from a 31-31 half time tie to demolish the Maryland Terrapins, 71-44.
The Cavs, once a certain lock for an NCAA bid and a contender for the ACC regular season crown, stopped their first two-game losing streak of the season.
But that was only part of the story.
After having lost the services of their 7-foot center, Assane Sene, in only the third game of the conference season, Virginia had seen the contributions from their two outside scoring threats, Sammy Zeglinski and Joe Harris, virtually dry up.
Harris suffered a fracture in his non-shooting hand that required a protective covering that made it appear he was preparing for a cage match rather than a basketball game. And Zeglinski's shot had been MIA for so long its loved ones were preparing to petition the court to have it declared officially dead for insurance purposes.
Still, after a huge first half from Mike Scott, where Maryland elected to defend him in a manner that suggested they had never seen or heard of him before, and a strong showing inside and out from freshman Malcolm Brogdon, the 'Hoos could only manage to head for the locker room tied.
They had squandered a nine-point lead by allowing Maryland to score as many points (13) in 2:02 as they had allowed them to score in the first 14 minutes.
After a James Padgett dunk, eight seconds into the second half, gave Maryland a two-point lead, the Cavaliers went on a 16-0 run, holding the Terps scoreless for 8:23.
The Virginia run included 3-3 shooting from Joe Harris for all six of his points. Harris played only 17 minutes as the Cavaliers drew comfortably away, allowing Coach Tony Bennett to sit his second-leading scorer. Mike Scott had seven of the points and Sammy Zeglinski hit his second three of the game to a loud roar from the appreciative and hopeful (that his shot might be returning) JPJ crowd.
Let's see, that's a 16-0 run with seven from Scott, six from Harris, and three from Zeglinski. And all of a sudden, it seemed "same as it ever was" to the orange-clad faithful.
Cavaliers' players and coaches pointed to defensive lapses at North Carolina and turnover woes at Clemson as explanations for the past two losses.
In the first half their defense was better than the scoreboard made it appear. ACC leading scorer, Terrell Stoglin and backcourt mate Nick Faust hit six three-pointers, many of the NBA-range variety. On the offensive end, Virginia was still guilty of seven turnovers.
In the second half, however, the Cavaliers looked like they were making an instructional tape for "Bennettball."
Virginia "valued the ball", playing turnover free basketball. But as well as the offense played, the defense was even better.
The Cavaliers held the beleaguered visitors to just five baskets (on 24 attempts), none from beyond the arc, and only 13 points. In addition, they forced 11 turnovers and made six steals.
The Terps' 44 points made this the 11th time that Virginia held an opponent under 50. It was also the fifth time UVA kept a team under 30 percent shooting from the field.
For the Cavaliers, who will likely disappear from the national polls for the first time in 10 weeks on Monday, it was their 20th win of the season. It's the first time in five years they have achieved the 20-win mark.
The victory also improved their record to 7-5 in the ACC; good for a share of that coveted fourth spot in the standings (the top four teams enjoy a first-round bye in the conference tournament).
If the season were to end today the Cavaliers would claim the fourth bye as a result of owning the tiebreaker over NC State and Miami.
Mike Scott led all scorers with 25 points (16 in the first half). Brogdon finished with 14 points and Zeglinski added 11 for the Cavs.
For Maryland, Stoglin had 14 points, all in the first half. He was 0-7 from the field after the break.
Next for Virginia is a trip to Blacksburg on Tuesday where the Cavs will attempt to avenge their only home loss to date. Maryland returns to College Park to entertain Miami, also on Tuesday.
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