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STEVE DESHAZO: Zeglinski is Cavs’ X factor

GIVEN HIS choice, Sammy Zeglinski would probably vote to move the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament to the University of Maryland’s Comcast Center. In his last two visits there, Virginia’s fifth-year senior guard has scored a combined 45 points in leading the Cavaliers to a pair of victories.

It’s been a rare spot of consistency for a player whose career path has resembled a sine curve, with equal good times and frustrations. There have been high-scoring games, as well as recurring leg injuries and a prolonged shooting slump this season.

And as the Cavaliers prepare to open the ACC tournament Friday in Atlanta’s Phillips Arena, he’s hoping for one final upturn.

“Sammy’s had a really interesting year,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after Zeglinski matched his season high with 20 points in Sunday’s 75–72 overtime victory at Maryland. “I’m so happy he’s responded.

“He’s been through struggles and slumps, but I know he’s still got some good basketball left in him.”

The Cavaliers (22–8) certainly hope so. Mike Scott has done yeoman’s work this season, but the all-ACC forward can carry his depleted team only so far. When his teammates go cold on their outside shots, Scott draws more attention than a Justin Bieber ticket giveaway.

That’s why Zeglinski’s 4-for-9 performance from 3-point range was critical to Sunday’s win—and may be a good omen for the Cavaliers’ postseason chances.

“That was very big,” said Scott, who scored a career-high 35 points against the Terps. “I don’t worry about stats. Sammy’s got a lot of heart.”

The numbers don’t lie, though. Zeglinski entered his final season as a career 36 percent long-range shooter, and only four Cavaliers have made more career 3-pointers than his 198.

But in Virginia’s seven ACC losses, Zeglinski was a combined 8-for-43 (19 percent) on 3-pointers. In their nine wins, he’s 20-for-52 (38 percent).

That’s what makes him Virginia’s X factor, and his play may have an even bigger impact than Scott’s on the Cavaliers’ chances.

To his credit, Zeglinski hasn’t let his shooting percentage define him, and finds other ways to contribute even when his shot isn’t falling.

He’s been the Cavaliers’ No. 2 ball-handler and has improved his defense enough that Bennett trusted him to guard the ACC’s leading scorer, Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin, for much of Sunday’s game.

“I always go into games thinking of ways I can impact the game,” Zeglinski said. “Whether it’s rebounding, defense or using my basketball IQ. I’ve got a lot of experience. I’m not really worried about my scoring.”

But it sure helps the Cavaliers’ cause when he does.

Two of Virginia’s starters have severe offensive limitations: Junior point guard Jontel Evans averages 6.7 points a game, and sophomore forward Akil Mitchell 3.8. Joe Harris, the team’s No. 2 scorer at 11.4, is playing with a broken left (non-shooting) hand, and promising freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon is sidelined indefinitely with an undisclosed foot injury.

So when Zeglinski can keep opposing defenses honest, “it makes us a lot better,” Evans said. “It takes a lot of pressure off Mike and Joe when he’s hitting and getting to the basket.”

After a rash of injuries and transfers, the Cavaliers have just seven healthy scholarship players available for the postseason. Having Scott and the nation’s second-ranked scoring defense has kept them competitive against all odds this season, but their margin for error is slight.

That’s why the Cavaliers are hoping Zeglinski has emerged from his shooting funk at the right time—and that Sunday’s performance was a good omen.

“That’s what he’s supposed to do,” Scott said. “That’s what he’d better do.”

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

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