RALEIGH, N.C. — Of all the motivators in college basketball, perhaps none is as strong as graduation.
After a career littered with squandered leads and buzzer-beater defeats, the clock is ticking on the Virginia tenures of Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski. Armed with the teachings of time, they're making the most of them.
The most recent exhibit was Saturday night's 61-60 victory against N.C. State. The Wolfpack had the last possession, but mustered only a weak 3-point attempt.
"We're a completely different team than last year, particularly in late-game situations, because we've all been in those situations in the past and know how to handle them and know how to win," Zeglinski said. "It's unity, maturity and leadership."
It's been appreciated from the younger players, too.
"We stay together," sophomore Akil Mitchell said. "I think we've got a little more fire, a little more passion."
After U.Va. nearly gave back an eight-point lead in the final three minutes, Mitchell stepped up and stopped Lorenzo Brown on the game's final possession, breaking through a screen attempt to keep Brown outside the arc, where he launched a wobbly attempt that fell well short.
No. 19 Virginia (17-3, 4-2 ACC) locked up fourth place in the division and a key tiebreaker over N.C. State (15-7, 4-3), as this was the only meeting of the season between the teams. A boisterous crowd of 17,027 packed the RBC Center and created a hostile environment for the Cavs.
Of all the ways Scott contributed to the victory, including a game-high 18 points, perhaps nothing was as significant as his ability to handle foul trouble.
When Mitchell and Darion Akins each picked up their second foul early, Scott played nearly 11 minutes of foul-free basketball to end the half and maintain his presence.
"They were going right at me and being more physical," Scott said.
Asked if he had to change his game, he said that he did "a little bit, but not too much. Because then, you just allow them to score. You just have to play smart."
N.C. State's Richard Howell couldn't, and fouled out with 2 minutes remaining.
Savvy basketball has defined the Cavaliers this year, and their five road victories are the most at U.Va. in a decade.
Scott and Zeglinski, both fifth-year seniors, have seen the rigors of ACC play and risen to the challenge this year.
"You can talk about it, but it's more just doing it," Scott said. "We've been in these types of fights before. "
It was an odd game on the stat sheet as the Wolfpack had a huge disparity between guard and center play.
N.C. State made 2 of 15 shots from behind the arc, but made up for it with a 42-25 edge in rebounding, which produced a number of second and third chances.
With the game on the line, though, the Wolfpack found a way to put a scare into Virginia from behind the arc.
In a four-point game, N.C. State's C.J. Leslie was fouled. He missed both free throws, but the second bounced to Scott Wood, who knocked down a 3-pointer.
Leading by one, Virginia got the ball to Zeglinski, who had been red-hot all game. He missed a jumper as the shot clock expired, and the Wolfpack had the ball with 7.8 seconds left to set up Brown's attempt.
Strong second-half defense made the difference for the Cavs.
"I think I'll watch this tape and scratch my head, as coach [Mark Gottfried] will on the other side," Bennett said. "But we'll take it."
Inside the victorious locker room, the players found it easier to put their finger on the difference — a team of senior leaders determined to change the course of U.Va. basketball.
Can having played these games before really make that much of a difference?
"Honestly, yes," junior guard Jontel Evans said. "Mike, Sammy, me and Assane [Sene] have been here since coach Bennett got here, and I feel like the experience has really helped us out this year."
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