Cavaliers host Georgia Tech
The tale of Virginia basketball this season has been one of two separate teams. One is a frantic defensive unit that shows up at John Paul Jones wearing white, feeding off the energy of the home crowd to score blowout victories. The other is a blue-clad squad that travels across the country, seeming to constantly forget the passion and shooting stroke enjoyed in the comfort of Charlottesville.
Virginia (18-8, 8-5 ACC) hopes to introduce Georgia Tech (14-10, 4-8 ACC) to the far more imposing version of this team — the one that has notched 14 straight home victories — when the teams meet again Sunday. The Yellow Jackets won the previous matchup 66-60 Feb. 3 in Atlanta.
The Cavaliers have won 15-of-16 overall at home this season, but after dropping games against North Carolina and Miami on a two-game road trip, they are a lowly 3-6 away from home.
“We’re lights out when we’re at home, but when we don’t have our fans behind us, it’s a different team,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said.
The latest setback came in excruciating fashion — a 54-50 loss in Coral Gables, Fla. against No. 2 Miami on a defensive breakdown in the final moments. Hurricane senior center Reggie Johnson slipped untouched inside and received the entry pass, dropping in the game-winning layup and sending the Cavaliers to a result as familiar as it is frustrating.
Virginia returned to the basics after an uncharacteristic performance on the road against North Carolina, a team they had held to just 52 points at home earlier in the season. The Tar Heels scored 93 points against the Cavaliers’ conference leading defense, the highest point total yielded to a conference opponent during coach Tony Bennett’s four-year tenure here.
“You have to have some constants that don’t go away,” Bennett said. “That’s what we talk about: taking care of the ball, being good on defense, getting your transition defense set, playing unselfishly, getting quality looks. If you’re doing that, that’s what I ask of these guys.”
Virginia did most of those little things right in the loss to Miami, but that performance was not enough to upend the red-hot Hurricanes and notch a much-needed statement win to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume. With five regular season games remaining, the team is tied for third place in the conference standings, trailing only Miami and Duke. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi lists Virginia as one of his last four bubble teams in line for an at-large bid to the Big Dance.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, finds itself firmly on the outside looking in during its pursuit of its first Tournament appearance under second-year coach Brian Gregory. The Yellow Jackets have not won consecutive games in 2013 and began ACC play with five consecutive defeats. They rank dead-last in the conference in field-goal shooting, free throw shooting and 3-point shooting and are next-to-last in scoring offense.
Virginia, on the other hand, has climbed out of the cellar in scoring output on the heels of some impressive offensive performances, including four straight games with 70 or more points before being held to 50 against Miami. Limiting turnovers and playing unselfishly have been crucial, but nothing has been more important offensively than the dominant play of junior guard Joe Harris.
Harris has been something just short of a savior this season. His sharp touch has been one of the few constants offensively for a team that has struggled to put up points in the half court. He has led the team in scoring in 18-of-26 games overall including seven straight.
Harris’ 3-pointer with 58 seconds left against Miami Tuesday evening was the latest clutch moment for the sharpshooting guard. It tied the score at 46 and marked the 16th straight game that the 6-foot-6 Chelan, Washington native has knocked down a long ball. Just moments later, Harris earned a trip to the line looking to tie the score again, but he missed the second free throw attempt. A dejected Harris muttered two words as he slumped to the bench: My fault.
Harris’ teammates have no gripe with their unquestioned star, who has enjoyed a breakout season by averaging a team-high 16.7 points per game, fourth best in the ACC. He leads the conference by a wide margin in 3-point accuracy at 49.1 percent and is now the most accurate shooter in school history from beyond the arc.
“Joe is a very good player, he’s one of the best players in the ACC,” sophomore guard Paul Jesperson said. “Our whole team believes that. To see him having the year like he is is very good because he puts in a lot of work.”
Harris’ scoring ability has created opportunities for other players to find open looks. With the Cavaliers trailing by three with less than 20 seconds to play, fellow sharpshooter freshman forward Evan Nolte was left free on the right wing and he buried another 3-pointer to once again level the score.
“When you don’t have as good a defender on yourself because the best defender is playing Joe, it gives us an opportunity to score and put some points in,” Jesperson said. “I think that’s what we’re starting to do is have more spread out scoring. I think that’s helping our offense a lot.”
The Cavaliers will look to extend their longest home winning streak this decade and show the Yellow Jackets what they are capable of when the home crowd is behind them beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“The fans, they’ve come out in droves,” Mitchell said. “They’ve really gotten behind us and I think they’ve been a major reason for our success here.”