Cavs get hot but cool down after big win
Men's basketball clicks to begin ACC play then loses momentum
Forward Akil Mitchell cannot pinpoint a single Hoosiers-like moment when things began to click for the Virginia basketball team, but whatever the cause, the Cavaliers have begun a steady ascent into ACC relevancy. Since Nov. 17, following a 59-53 loss to Delaware, the team’s second loss to a Colonial Athletic Association foe in its first three games, the Cavaliers morphed into a different, more formidable team — a team that went on to win its next eight games.
“You don’t really want to lose to wake the team up,” Mitchell said. “But if it’s necessary, I think it might be a good thing for us to take a loss … It’s still kind of early in the season, so we still have room to grow.”
With senior floor general Jontel Evans limited to just seven appearances this season with a foot injury, the team’s talented freshmen were asked to grow up sooner than they expected. The rapid progress of freshman forwards Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte and guards Justin Anderson and Teven Jones alongside the dominant play of juniors Mitchell and guard Joe Harris sparked the team’s dominant run, albeit against mostly weak competition.
Following the team’s second win during the streak, a 63-44 victory against Lamar with Evans spectating from the sidelines, the coach told his team he could see tangible improvement.
“I just want to keep getting the guys healthy — that will take some more time,” Bennett said. “I think we are making the most of our opportunities. As I told them before the game, sometimes things don’t always show, but we are continuing to build.”
Virginia weathered Evans’ lengthy absence by coalescing around a philosophy that has become a staple of Virginia basketball under Bennett: Defense wins games. Although Harris and Mitchell have provided just enough offense by averaging team-bests of 15.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game respectively, the defense has continued to be a key component of Bennett’s formula for winning basketball.
The Cavaliers rank dead-last in the ACC in scoring offense, but have offset their shortcomings with the conference’s stingiest defense, which has allowed just 51.6 points per game. Virginia has not allowed more than 64 points in any game this season behind its stifling pack-line defense.
Although Old Dominion became the third CAA team to upset Virginia this season Dec. 22 in Richmond, the Cavaliers returned to Charlottesville Dec. 30 and regained their form, easily handling Wofford 74-39. The Cavaliers could not let up after the blowout victory, however, with a matchup against North Carolina — the lone ACC team that had not lost in John Paul Jones Arena — looming a week later in the conference opener.
Against a Cavalier team that came into the game 3-0 in ACC openers under Bennett, the Tar Heels clung to a 25-24 halftime edge, becoming the first team to lead Virginia at halftime in nearly two months. Harris finished the game as Virginia’s only player to score in double figures, netting 19, but the Cavaliers held the Tar Heels seven points below their previous season-low scoring total and earned a statement 61-52 win in a nationally televised game.
“It was a big win for this program … It’s big for us to get a ‘W’ like that,” Mitchell said. “But again, we have to be able to carry that momentum into the next few games and kind of put it behind us and keep playing the way we have been.”
Evans’ injury was undoubtedly a setback for Virginia, but his absence gave the team’s talented freshmen valuable playing time, which has paid off in recent weeks. Tobey, Nolte, Jones and Anderson have each started at least one game, and all four have proven to be indispensable bench assets for Bennett.
“The young guys just need to continue to do what they’re doing now and hopefully it will make them better as their careers go on but it’s definitely making an impact on this team right now,” Mitchell said.
After the win against the Tar Heels, with the team’s health improving, its young players thriving and its confidence soaring, the Cavaliers eyed a fast start in ACC play. Instead, the team has taken a step back with a pair of road losses against Wake Forest and Clemson in the past week.
Evans returned to the starting lineup against the Demon Deacons Jan. 9, giving the Cavaliers a starting five devoid of freshmen and allowing Bennett to finally utilize the lineup he envisioned entering the season. But Virginia suffered its 10th consecutive loss in Winston-Salem, falling 55-52, despite holding Wake Forest without a field goal during the final 10 minutes of the game. Virginia followed the setback with a season-low 44 points in a 15-point loss at Clemson Saturday.
“I feel like we didn’t — the upperclassmen especially — really come out with the intensity that we needed to come out with,” Mitchell said after the team’s loss to Wake Forest. “It should have been a lesson we learned at George Mason or against Old Dominion, but I think hopefully this will be the time we realize that we have to come out with the same intensity for every game.”
Evans’ return presents a new challenge for Virginia, forcing freshmen such as Jones — who had helped spark the team’s resurgence — back into a supporting role. The Cavaliers will not play again until this Saturday against Florida State, giving them a week to once again establish new roles on offense as they look to snap their two-game slide.