Young Virginia roster flips the script, demolishes Florida State
The Virginia basketball team outplayed Florida State in every way imaginable for a full 40 minutes Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena. But one 15-second sequence best encapsulated the near-complete transformation the Cavaliers have undergone since the return of senior point guard Jontel Evans from a foot injury.
Junior Akil Mitchell drove unguarded through the heart of the paint and finished with a rim-rocking one-handed jam to give the Cavaliers an 18-point lead. On the other end of the court, freshmen forward Evan Nolte and guard Justin Anderson swatted away two would-be dunks inside by seemingly wide-open Seminoles. Evans then calmly and quickly led the break, drawing the defense before setting up Anderson on the left wing for the team’s seventh 3-pointer of the opening period.
The raucous crowd of 12,303 momentarily went silent, as Anderson’s 3-pointer left his hands. Every fan in the arena could only be thinking, “Another one?” The ball found nothing but net, extending Virginia’s lead to 33-13 and prompting Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton to take a full timeout.
“It energized the crowd, and when the crowd gets into it, we get into it and it’s a lot of fun to play,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said of the sequence. “Justin hitting that three was a big shot and it just lit the place on fire.”
Virginia (12-5, 2-2 ACC) emphatically ended its seven-game losing streak to Florida State (10-7, 2-2 ACC) with a 56-36 demolition of the Seminoles and snapped one of its most thorough scoring droughts in decades. Despite Evans’ return, the Cavaliers had scored just 96 total points in road losses to Wake Forest and Clemson, the team’s lowest two-game total in back-to-back contests since 1982.
Virginia scored an efficient 56 points on 22-of-45 shooting including 7-of-9 from 3-point range in the first half to improve to 11-1 at home this season. The Cavaliers also held an opponent under 40 points for the third time this season to earn their first win against the Seminoles since Feb. 2007 and even their record in ACC play.
Even as sophomore forward Darion Atkins became the third Cavalier this season to miss time with a lower extremity injury, Evans’ veteran leadership provided the perfect complement for a team that has teetered on the edge of a breakthrough for weeks. The Cavaliers scored 33 points off of sharp-shooting performances by sophomore guard Paul Jesperson, junior guard Joe Harris and Nolte to grab an 18-point edge at the break.
“I never seen those guys shoot like that,” Evans said. “I mean their good shooters but tonight they were great shooters.”
The first half of the Cavaliers’ season was characterized by the dominance of Harris and Mitchell, the quick transition by four game-ready freshmen and the typical swarming pack-line defense that has become a staple under coach Tony Bennett. But perhaps nothing that happened on the court could offer more solace than what was waiting on the bench.
Evans made his third consecutive start, scoring six points and adding five rebounds in 28 minutes, but his contribution could not be fully captured by the stat sheet. Time-after-time, Evans found spot-up shooters for open looks from beyond the arc. Four of his five first-half assists resulted in 3-point field goals, and his quickness and decision-making catalyzed a halfcourt offense that had been largely dormant for weeks. He matched a career-best in ACC play with seven assists for the game and moved into 10th all-time in school history with 323 assists.
“Jontel is so good at getting into the paint and creating shots for guys like me and Paul and Evan,” Harris said. “He draws a lot of attention just because he’s able to break guys down and it makes it easier for a shooter when you have a point guard like Jontel.”
The play of the team’s floor general made the contributions of Harris and Mitchell more fluid and efficient. Harris scored a game-high 17 points including three 3-pointers and Mitchell added 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Virginia’s freshmen, who have averaged 22.7 points per game this season—the most since the 2003-04 season—added just 12 points, but their contributions on defense proved key. Mike Tobey, Teven Jones, Anderson and Nolte—who started in place of Atkins—helped hold the Seminoles to just 15 first-half points, the fewest by a Cavalier opponent in the opening period since 1996.
Virginia, who entered the game second in the nation in scoring defense at 51.6 points per contest, frustrated the Seminoles all game. Florida State made just 1-of-15 shots from beyond the arc, had 18 turnovers and just five assists and had zero fast break points. Florida State’s 36 points scored was the third lowest total by a Cavalier opponent in the shot clock era and the fewest in John Paul Jones Arena history.
“I think it was just good defense,” Evans said. “Usually they don’t really turn the ball over and we rushed them on offense and they were taking contested shots and missing and turning it over which was good for us.”
Senior guard Michael Snaer paced Florida State with nine points, but the Seminoles would draw no closer than 14 points in the second half. Snaer opened the scoring by splitting two Cavalier defenders and elevating over Mitchell, finishing with a smooth left-handed finger roll for Florida State’s only lead of the game at 2-0.
Virginia led 11-9 with 14 minutes remaining in the first half, and took control from there with their best basketball of the season over the next 11 minutes. Virginia scored ten consecutive points including 3-pointers by Harris and Anderson before the Seminoles stopped the bleeding with baskets by Snaer and junior forward Okaro White. The Cavaliers followed that run with another 12-0 spurt, bookended by Anderson’s block and transition 3-pointer off the feed from Evans.
“To just get things rolling offensively at the beginning of the game, it’s always huge,” Harris said. “Momentum-wise, I think that carried on for the rest of the half and into the second half.”
After utilizing a starting-five devoid of freshman for a single game, Bennett was forced to reinsert Nolte into the opening lineup as a result of yet another troubling injury. Atkins, who has formed a dynamic duo in the paint alongside Mitchell, is out indefinitely with a right leg injury. Atkins leads the team in blocked shots with 25 and is averaging 6.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in a breakout sophomore season.
Saturday, the disappointment of replacing one injured starter for another faded with the Cavaliers’ most impressive team effort of the season.
“I think our guys certainly fed off the energy and the atmosphere” in the arena, Bennett said. “It seemed like we went up a notch from our last home game, and that is terrific.”
The near-constant screams of the fans in attendance faded in the final minutes—but not because of a lull in the home team’s play. Seminole redshirt junior forward Terrance Shannon was forced to be removed by a stretcher after an apparent head injury.