Tomas Woldetensae’s JUCO stardom finally translates to ACC play

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Virginia Louisville Basketball

Virginia guard Tomas Woldetensae (left) drives toward the basket around Louisville guard Lamarr Kimble on Saturday in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

It’s about 5:30 p.m. ET in Louisville, Kentucky.

Tomas Woldetensae steps off a Francisco Caffaro screen, reels in a pass and fires a left-handed jumper in front of the Virginia bench. The ball rips through the net, as Kadin Shedrick dances and ESPN’s announcers scream.

Virginia cuts Louisville’s lead to 66-65 with just over four minutes remaining.

The camera pans to Woldetensae, who licks the finger tips on both his hands and crouches into a defensive stance, his gaze unwavering.

He’s feeling it.

Virginia fans watching in Charlottesville are taken aback by Woldetensae’s 3-point shooting display — he knocks down seven before the final buzzer sounds in an 80-73 loss. The Cavalier faithful were thrilled by the JUCO transfer’s performance, which kept Tony Bennett’s team in the game.

They aren’t the only ones thrilled by Woldetensae.

At about 4:30 p.m. CT in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a group of college basketball players sat down at an Applebee’s for a pregame meal. They’re 2.5 hours away from tipoff against Iowa Western Community College. The players, who were about 1,180 miles from Charlottesville at the time, crowded around a TV as the Virginia sharp shooter found his groove.

Indian Hills Community College head coach Hank Plona took his team to a pregame meal about half an hour before Woldetensae’s 3-point outburst. As the team settled in for dinner, they were treated to two for $20 deals and a magnificent display of jump shooting from Woldetensae, who starred on their team a season ago.

The coach streamed the first half of the Louisville-UVa game on the ESPN app as the team drove to their game. Coverage was spotty, so he only watched bits and pieces.

Virginia trailed by 14 at halftime. The team stopped to grab dinner around halftime, and Plona realized the game was on TVs in the restaurant. “Sweet” he thought to himself. A closer look showed the deficit closed to about five and his interest piqued.

As Plona started to pay close attention to the game, he knew Woldetensae felt good.

“There was one time, he came off a down screen, and Kihei kind of missed him,” Plona said. “You know, he thought he was open, he kind of missed him, and Tomas clapped his hands. I hadn’t seen the first two shots — I didn’t know he made them — but I said, ‘Ooh, he looks like he’s in a zone.’ That’s the confidence.”

Woldetensae flashed that confidence during his two junior college seasons. The Italian put in work daily to become an elite shooter, and Plona saw that effort first hand well before Woldetensae flashed the ability on national television last weekend.

“He works on it,” Plona said. “I don’t think anything about being a shooter is natural. Shoot, I grew up in Connecticut, so I grew up watching Ray Allen, and Ray Allen would always say, ‘You’re not born with any of this. You work hard on it,’ and Tomas is a good example of that. He works on all those shots, and getting his balance and elevating up.”

Confidence builds from the reps taken in the gym when nobody watches. It comes from significant practice and concocting a reliable shooting streak that translates to the games. Once a player gains that confidence, defending them becomes a nightmare.

It’s a confidence that Virginia head coach Tony Bennett knows well. During his collegiate playing days at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Bennett knocked down seven 3-pointers on three separate occasions, including a 9-for-10 performance in 1992 against Manhattan.

The left-handed shooting Bennett is no stranger to what shooters dub “the zone.”

“It’s a rhythm and a feel that you get,” Bennett said. “You pay the price through the reps, and then you just have a feel and a rhythm that comes. I don’t know if you say it all slows down, but it’s very rhythmic and you just have a feel that you’re surprised — very surprised — when it doesn’t go in.”

Bennett and the Cavaliers refer to great jump shooters running around screens as “hunting” their shot. When Bennett found himself in the zone, he hunted.

“I always remember, at least with me, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the next one,” Bennett laughed. “I don’t know if I was greedy with it, but I was hungry. If I hit a couple, it better be coming my way the next time.”

Woldetensae joins a long list of 3-point specialists to come through Bennett’s program. Joe Harris lights up defenders in the NBA as one of the league’s top 3-point shooters, and Kyle Guy poured in seven 3-pointers three times a season ago. Woldetensae looks the part of the next elite Virginia 3-point shooter.

That wasn’t the case to start the season. He came to UVa with a reputation as a 3-point marksman, but that didn’t come to fruition at the start of the season. As Woldetensae adjusted to Division I basketball and recovered from an injury to his wrist, it took time for the 3-point form to return.

With 17 made 3-pointers in his past four games, Woldetensae appears to have found his stroke.

The persistence and eventual improvement come as no surprise to Plona.

“I remember telling Coach Bennett when he recruited him, I said, ‘Hey, watch the film. He can really shoot, but you gotta decide if he fits in with what you wanna do,’” Plona said. “I said, ‘As a person, he’s never gonna quit. It’s never gonna be too hard for him. You can coach him however way you want. There’s no quit in this kid.’”

Plona went to the Virginia-Stony Brook game in December when Wodletensae went 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. Plona spent time with Woldetensae after the game and encouraged him to keep shooting, regardless of the outcome.

After coaching him for two seasons, Plona knew Woldetensae wouldn’t let a few missed shots deter him. That’s proven to be true, as Woldetensae finds himself among the elite shooters in the nation since mid-January.

“Even when he was struggling, there was never a chance that he would get frustrated to the point where he would break,” Plona said. “He’s as tough of a 20- or 21-year-old man as there is.”

Plona and his team watched their gritty former teammate post a career-high 27 points in a road game against the No. 5 team in the country.

A few hours later, the Warriors (24-3) took the court and earned an 82-63 win against a conference foe for their 19th win in their past 20 games.

“It was cool,” Plona said. “I said, ‘Alright, maybe this will be a good day for the program’ and we ended up getting a big win. It was a good day all around.”

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