Mitchell, Cavaliers seek sixth straight win vs. Vols
Redshirt freshman point guard Teven Jones Wednesday night walked to the line for the most important free throws of his young collegiate career with 32 seconds remaining and Virginia clinging to a 4-point lead against Tennessee. But before the teams could even get to the line, the shot clock lights went out, forcing Jones back to the sideline to wait and think. Coach Tony Bennett turned to assistant athletic director Ronnie Wideman and asked, “Now?”
Bennett and Virginia had more than a few reasons to ask that question on a night when senior point guard Jontel Evans inopportunely reinjured his troublesome right foot, possibly inflicting a crippling loss on the Cavaliers at a highly inconvenient time.
When it mattered most, however, Jones came through. After the lights returned, he calmly returned to the line and sank both free throws to help the Cavaliers earn their most impressive win of the season in characteristic, grinding fashion, beating Tennessee 46-38. Virginia (7-2, 0-0 ACC) shot 36 percent from the field, made just one 3-pointer and had just two scorers in double figures. For the best statistical defensive team in the ACC, that performance was plenty to get by the Volunteers.
“They’re not pretty games, they’re not fun games to watch but since I’ve been here, there’s no greater satisfaction than holding a team and frustrating them with your defense,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said.
Just five days after Tennessee (4-3, 0-0 ACC) suffered through its worst offensive performance in 15 years in a 37-36 defeat to Georgetown, the Cavaliers held the Vols below the 40-point mark for the second time in a week. Virginia’s 46 points allowed was the fewest the Cavaliers had earned in a win since 1982.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Bennett said. “I think there’s better basketball out there for us. We weren’t the prettiest, but it’s a grind for us and we just keep trying to find what Virginia basketball is going to have to look like.”
After Tennessee cut the Cavalier lead to four with a 5-0 spurt to open the second half, Virginia’s most polished offensive weapons responded with four flawless minutes of basketball. Evans split the defense on back-to-back possessions and finished with a layup, pushing the Cavalier lead back up to eight. Moments later, Evans found junior guard Joe Harris for the team’s lone 3-pointer of the night. Virginia extended its largest lead of the game to 15 when Mitchell rebounded and scored on an Evans’ miss and Harris added a jumper on an alley-oop inbounds pass from Evans.
Then, with Virginia’s three best offensive options all clicking for the first time this season, Evans tweaked his foot and exited the game. He did not return.
“I’m just worried for him, being his senior year,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know what to expect. I’m not sure he knows what to expect, so just pray for the best.”
The injury changed the tenor of the game. Tennessee responded with a 12-2 run to cut the lead to 38-33 with 7 minutes, 41 seconds remaining.
Despite Evans’ injury, Virginia was able to close out the win the same way it built the lead: with stifling defense. Tennessee got no closer than within 4 points of Virginia before Jones’ clutch free throws effectively sealed the win.
If Evans is forced to miss more time with his foot injury, the Cavaliers will likely reinsert Jones into the starting lineup. For the first time this season, the Cavaliers used a starting five devoid of freshmen and used their reserves, all freshmen, sparingly.
Mitchell and Harris once again led the team offensively with 13 points apiece. Sophomore forward Darion Atkins added 8 points with an array of fadeaway jumpers in the paint, and Evans finished with 4 points and four assists.
Virginia held Tennessee to just 6 points for nearly the first 15 minutes of the first half to build an early 21-6 lead. The Volunteers missed all eight of their 3-pointer attempts, committed nine turnovers and made just eight field goals in the period. But Virginia had its own struggles offensively, managing just 25 points in the 20 minutes on 39 percent shooting.
“Those are two good defensive teams,” Bennett said. “Baskets weren’t easy to come by. It was physical. We’re trying to play tough possession basketball.”
Virginia hosts Mississippi Valley State Saturday and looks to extend its winning streak to seven.
“We’ve grown up so much,” Mitchell said. “We’ve matured as a team, we’ve found an identity and with Tony Bennett teams, you know what our identity is.”