Virginia torches Tech, 73-55
Junior scores career-high 26 points to lead team to 14th straight home victory
The Virginia men’s basketball team has been unstoppable at John Paul Jones Arena of late, and Tuesday was no different as the Cavaliers completed a season sweep of rival Virginia Tech, 73-55. Offensively, junior guard Joe Harris kept the Cavaliers’ roll going by pouring in a career-high 26 points. At the other end, they shut down senior Hokie guard Erick Green in the first half and built an insurmountable lead before the ACC’s leading scorer could find his shooting touch.
With the win Virginia (18-6, 8-3 ACC) extended its home winning streak to 14 games, topped rival Virginia Tech (11-13, 2-9 ACC) for the third straight time and secured its best record in conference play through 11 ACC games since the 2006-07 season.
Harris put on a shooting clinic early, going 5-of-5 from beyond the arc en route to scoring 17 first-half points. The Cavaliers’ first 9 points of the evening all came courtesy of Harris’ long-range marksmanship.
“We hoped to slow him down a bit, but he came out of the gates blazing,” Virginia Tech coach James Johnson said of Harris. “Before we could make the switch and get someone else on him, he already had nine points on three 3-pointers right in our mouth.”
Harris not only put up big numbers, but did so with an efficient 7-for-12 shooting performance.
“I thought it was impressive,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “It makes me look like a good coach when he comes out and plays like that. He had great rhythm. He was hunting the shot, moving hard off the screens. I thought he got us off to the right start.”
Meanwhile, Green — who torched the Cavaliers for 35 points the last time the teams met Jan. 24 — struggled mightily in the first half. While his nifty ball-handling was in rare form as he drove into the paint on a few occasions, his shooting touch failed him. He scored only one point in the first half and missed all seven of his field goal attempts as senior guard Jontel Evans pestered him repeatedly.
“I told my teammates that I was going to waste all my energy on defense tonight,” Evans said. “I wanted to show people that I’m still a good defender and what better chance is there than to go against one of the best players in the country? I think that I showed it tonight.”
The game’s opening 13 minutes were close, but then the Cavaliers caught fire offensively, tightened up at their own end of the floor and went on a 12-0 run to break open what had been a 21-20 ballgame. Harris fueled the run with a pair of 3-pointers and junior forward Akil Mitchell capped it with a transition layup.
A short while later, freshman forward Evan Nolte would put a fitting cap on the opening 20 minutes of play by knocking down the team’s seventh of nine total 3-pointers to send Virginia into the break leading 36-23.
In the second half, Green finally found his stroke and managed to finish the night with 22 points, but the performance was too little, too late. Eleven of Green’s points came during a span of four Hokie possessions in which he scored his first buckets of the night and drained three treys. The Cavaliers, however, answered with baskets of their own after the first two Green 3-pointers and never allowed Virginia Tech to meaningfully chip into the deficit.
Instead, the Cavaliers built their advantage to as many as 22 with 5:12 remaining and never looked back. A thunderous dunk by Mitchell — who finished with 17 points and eight boards — with 5:51 to play was perhaps the final dagger emotionally for the Hokies.
The usually defense-oriented Cavaliers are now averaging 77 points in their last three games after switching to a guard-heavy lineup when they lost freshman forward Mike Tobey to mononucleosis last week. With hot hands abound, the Cavaliers did not hesitate to pass to teammates for open looks.
“Tonight, we were really comfortable in the offense,” sophomore guard Paul Jesperson said. “We rely on our defense, but I think offensively, guys have been sharing the ball more, and I think that has a lot to do with our attitude.”
One moment late in the first half in which Virginia strung together a sequence of slick passes freed Harris for an open jumper in the lane, and though he fired a rare miss, it epitomized their willingness to share the rock. Evans played an instrumental role in facilitating the ball movement, finishing with six assists and just one turnover, in addition to scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds. His sure handling helped the Cavaliers limit Virginia Tech to six takeaways. The Hokies scored only four points off turnovers and went without any fast break points.
“When you have that high assists and low turnovers, that’s really important for us,” Bennett said. “I think our guys are learning to value the ball and … take pride in that.”
By game’s end Bennett continued what has been a familiar routine for Virginia: Bringing in the backups to close the deal. Harris left to a standing ovation for his career night, and senior guard Doug Browman did the honors of dribbling out the clock on the Cavaliers’ seventh win in the last eight games.
Virginia will now travel to Chapel Hill for a rematch against North Carolina Saturday. The Cavaliers won 61-52 against the Tar Heels in the teams’ Jan. 6 matchup in Charlottesville.