Cavaliers crush Yellow Jackets, 82-54
Virginia wins 15th consecutive home game, Mitchell records ACC career-high 18 points
Senior point guard Jontel Evans had a message for his squad after the Virginia men’s basketball team’s double-digit lead was slashed to five early in the second half against Georgia Tech Sunday: “Don’t let history repeat itself.”
Virginia (19-8, 9-5 ACC) answered Evans’ challenge by closing the game on a 37-14 run to notch an 82-54 blowout victory and score a measure of revenge against the Yellow Jackets (14-12, 4-10 ACC). The Cavaliers had squandered a nine-point lead with just over eight minutes to play Feb. 3 in Atlanta in a 66-60 loss, but they evened the season series with one of their most efficient offensive performances of the season.
“They snuck one in on us and we took it personally,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said of the first matchup. “I feel like we had something to prove to ourselves, and I think we did that tonight.”
Junior guard Joe Harris, Mitchell and Evans orchestrated the team’s fifth 70-point scoring effort in six games as Virginia tied North Carolina for third place in the ACC standings with four regular season games remaining. The win also guaranteed the team its second consecutive season finishing .500 or better in conference play, a feat it had not accomplished since 2001.
The veteran trio combined for 43 points, including the first 14 of the second half to jump-start a dominant 16-1 run that put Virginia well in position for its 15th straight home victory, a John Paul Jones Arena record. After Yellow Jacket freshman forward Robert Carter, Jr. knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 45-40 with 14:16 to play, the trio scored 10 straight for Virginia in the next three minutes.
Mitchell snagged a pair of offensive rebounds to earn a trip to the line for two points. Harris followed with a floating jumper in the lane and then Evans attacked the left side for a layup. Evans then split four Yellow Jacket defenders applying full court pressure and dished to Mitchell for yet another layup. Out of a timeout, Evans added a driving layup with a strong lefty finish to make the score 55-41.
“I thought that when they made their run, we were a little bit lackadaisical on the transition defense,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “What sparked us certainly was Jontel Evans’ play, his ability to get to the rim and make some plays.”
The team’s three most prominent players helped Virginia take control, but it was seldom-used backup guard freshman Taylor Barnette who put the contest out of reach. Barnette came off the bench to hit 3-pointers on successive possessions, extending the lead to 20 and forcing Yellow Jacket coach Brian Gregory to call a timeout with his team on its way to becoming the third straight Cavalier opponent to lose by 18 or more points at John Paul Jones Arena.
“You certainly can feel the energy, that’s what home court’s all about,” Bennett said. “It’s nice to see that the crowd’s really rallying behind these guys. It has to make a difference without a doubt.”
Virginia looked sluggish early in the game, allowing Georgia Tech to score on its first three possessions. Redshirt junior center Daniel Miller slipped inside and received an entry pass, laying in the game’s first field goal in eerily reminiscent fashion to the team’s defensive breakdown that cost them in the final seconds of their 54-50 loss against No. 2 Miami Feb. 19.
The Cavaliers responded with consecutive 3-pointers by sophomore guard Paul Jesperson and freshman guard Justin Anderson to take an 8-7 lead at the 15:32 mark. Virginia then took control out of the game’s first timeout courtesy of the team’s senior point guard.
Evans delivered a pass to Anderson cutting off a screen, who took one dribble before finishing with a monstrous two-handed jam. On the next possession Evans then hit a cutting Jesperson, who finished with a right-handed layup, and found a wide-open Mitchell on the possession after that to stretch the lead to 14-7.
Mitchell would return the favor by hitting Evans cutting along the baseline for a runner. With the shot clock winding down on the team’s next possession, Evans then knocked down a jumper from the foul line to push the lead to 18-11. He scored or assisted on six of the team’s first seven field goals and finished with 10 points, eight assists and no turnovers.
“He’s a great point guard,” Mitchell said of Evans. “He brings that senior leadership and just playing with him the last three years I’ve learned what he’s going to do and he’s figured me out the same way. We’re clicking at a good rate right now.”
Mitchell added three consecutive layups late in the first half for six of the 46 points in the paint for Virginia. With the return of freshman forward Mike Tobey, who spent the last few weeks battling mononucleosis, Mitchell was able to receive some much-needed rest that sparked his dominant performance.
Harris, meanwhile, contributed 15 points on 4-of-10 shooting despite having his streak of consecutive games with a 3-pointer ended at 16.
The team’s starters put the game out of reach, but its backups put on a show late by keeping the scoring barrage coming. Reserves scored 12 of the team’s last 14 points over the final 5:40 of the game. Tobey sank a 3-pointer and Anderson added the final exclamation point by racing down the court on a fast break, evading one Yellow Jacket defender and stuffing a two-handed slam for the team’s final basket.
“Over the last six weeks [Virginia’s] been playing just as well, if not better, than everybody in this league,” Gregory said. “They showed that today.”
The Cavaliers now host No. 6 Duke in a Thursday night game that will be televised on ESPN. Virginia has not defeated the Blue Devils since Feb. 1, 2007, and they remain the only ACC team that Bennett has not beaten as head coach here.
“We’re ready for Duke right now,” Evans said. “This Georgia Tech win is behind us and our focus is on Duke for Thursday and it’s going to be a battle.”