Cavaliers battle Tigers, look to extend win streak
Men's basketball second in ACC, can maintain two game edge over Duke
The Virginia men’s basketball team has hit its stride in recent weeks and looks to build upon its impressive NCAA tournament résumé this Saturday against ACC foe Clemson.
The Cavaliers (20-5, 11-1 ACC) struggled briefly before the new year — determining a consistent starting five proving a tall task for Virginia’s coaching staff. But in the current run of 11 wins in 12 games, the coaching staff has not only put together a solid group of starters, they have formed a rotation capable of standing up to some of the best teams in the nation.
“I think if you have a rotation down, that’s the important thing,” coach Tony Bennett said.
Virginia travels to Clemson (15-8, 6-5 ACC) this Saturday, coming off a victory against Maryland in the final ACC home matchup between the two rivals. Monday’s win was important for Virginia across the board, but especially for the continued establishment of the squad’s rotation.
“That’s been a strength,” Bennett said. “Darion [Atkins] … has given us a big lift, Teven [Jones] did, Evan [Nolte]… did against Boston College.”
A large factor in Virginia’s recent streak has been the continued contributions of the team’s bench players. Sophomore guard Justin Anderson has particularly distinguished himself in this role, currently averaging 9.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game as the sixth man.
“With Justin, we’ve always talked about his passion and his energy he brings and his ability to make those big plays that ignite us,” Bennett said.
His energy was never more on display than in the matchup against Maryland. Following a turnover in the second half, Anderson ran down a fast break and blocked Terrapin freshman guard Roddy Peters’ layup attempt, leading to a transition three-pointer from senior guard Joe Harris, swinging the game’s momentum in favor of Virginia.
“They got the breakaway off of a turnover, so it was a huge momentum shift for us,” senior forward Akil Mitchell said. “From there on out, we locked it down on the defensive end.”
Harris, meanwhile, has also increased his production in recent games, averaging 13.2 points in the last eight games and logging a number of distinguished performances in the last month — none more impressive than his 19 points against Maryland.
“Virginia has been pounding teams this year but, tonight Joe [Harris] had to step up, and he did it,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “Harris hit a three at the start of the second half and that started them off on a good run. He’s a great player.”
The Cavaliers will look to carry on their momentum into a tough road test at Clemson. The Tigers’ home court, Littlejohn Coliseum, is a notoriously difficult place to play. Clemson is 12-2 this season at home, highlighted by a Jan. 11 win against No. 8 Duke, 72-59.
“Going down there, that’s quite a place to play,” Bennett said. “You really have to have your mind set to be ready to go.”
Though many teams struggle when playing in Clemson, S.C., Virginia has had particular trouble. The Cavaliers have fallen in each of their last four trips there.
Much like Virginia, the Tigers pride themselves on their defense, which ranks second in the nation in points allowed, giving up just 56.2 points per game, right behind Virginia’s 55.5.
“Defensively, they’re terrific,” Bennett said. “They’re very athletic. They make you earn what you get. They’re good on the glass.”
The Tigers’ defensive presence is led by junior forward K.J. McDaniels, who is averaging 2.7 blocks per game — a total that ranks first in the ACC. He is also averaging 17.0 points per game, good for sixth best in the conference.
“He’s just playing at an extremely high level, and that’s been important in their success,” Bennett said. “He has the ability to make a difference on the defensive end, whether it’s shot-blocking or rebounding, and he has the ability to get to the lane. He’s pretty complete.”
The Cavaliers’ tip-off against the Tigers is set for noon Saturday and will be televised on ESPN2.