Individual Cavaliers sacrifice minutes for team's benefit
Success can take a lot out of a team.
With four ACC games in the past eight days, it hasn’t been easy for Virginia. The Cavaliers have had to grind out wins much more than they did earlier in conference play. They have not had the luxury of lofty first-half leads, forcing them to rely on their depth to outlast teams and pull away in the second half.
Luckily for the Cavaliers, they have plenty of depth.
“[Senior guard] Joe [Harris] was really good in the second half, he hunted down shots,” coach Tony Bennett said. “[Freshman point guard] London [Perrantes] made some good plays. Everyone did. [Sophomore point guard] Teven [Jones] gave us a lift when he came in. It took a little bit of everything today.”
But not everyone on the team has been overly thrilled with Virginia’s depth. Players have had to sacrifice playing time for the good of the team — every returner from last year is playing fewer minutes per game.
Senior forward Akil Mitchell — the team’s second leading scorer last year at 13.1 points per game — is playing 5.5 fewer minutes per game and has seen his scoring average cut almost in half to 7.1 points per game.
Still, Mitchell perseveres, leading the team on the glass with 6.7 boards per game, a huge reason why the Cavaliers out-rebound their opponents by an average of 36.6-29.7.
And lately, when the team has needed Mitchell to step up, he has answered the call. The senior recorded his second double-double of the season against No. 25 Pitt, but had perhaps his best game of the season Monday night against Maryland, recording a season-high 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, along with three assists and a game-high six rebounds.
Mitchell was also a huge factor in holding Maryland junior forward Evan Smotrycz, who led the team with eight points in the first half, scoreless after halftime.
“I think a number of guys have stepped up, but definitely Akil,” Bennett said. “He is playing on the glass, he is finishing better and his ability to guard mobile guys is such a strength. He is huge in our defensive system and he uses his versatility well.”
On a night where Harris couldn’t get much going in the first half, Mitchell led the team with eight points. Down three just seconds before the break, Mitchell slipped off a screen and snuck into the post — so wide open he threw his hands in the air and jumped up and down to signal for the ball. He flushed a dunk to cut the Terrapins’ lead to one and give Virginia momentum going into the break.
Early in the second half, Maryland again took a three-point lead. After a missed jumper, Mitchell fought for the offensive rebound inside and laid it back in. Two possessions later, Mitchell again pulled down a tough offensive rebound, this time kicking the ball back out to Harris for a three-pointer and a lead that Virginia would never relinquish.
After his most productive offensive outing of the year, Mitchell had no qualms about his reduced playing time and indicated his role is as big as it’s ever been.
“It’s just a learning curve, guys get upset here and there [about playing less],” Mitchell said. “But I think we’ve all really started to buy in over these past few games … I think we all understand that and I think it’s my job as a leader to make sure we all understand that.”
Junior forward Darion Atkins is another Cavalier who has seen his minutes slip this year, playing just 6.3 minutes per game in the six-game stretch from Duke to Pitt. But like Mitchell, Atkins has been ready to step up when Bennett needs him. He has averaged 15 minutes in the past two games and made his presence felt in the paint.
“Darion’s good when his head is right,” Mitchell said. “He’s a great defender, really helps on the glass and as you see down the stretch, getting big blocks and defensive stops. When he’s ready and he’s good to play, he helps us out so much.”
Their coach agreed.
“I think [Atkins] is a great example of just staying with it because every player is important,” Bennett said. “It was a defensive game to stop that ball screen, and Akil and Darion did a great job. When they are locked in they have the quickness and experience to bother people trying to use that screen.”
Virginia is sitting at 20-5, 11-1 in the ACC for its best start in conference play since the 1981-82 season. But Mitchell is adamant that now is not the time to reflect on how far the team has come since the nonconference portion of the season — that time is not until after March.
“I’m just having fun, I’m enjoying playing,” Mitchell said. “I feel like this is a special team. … We get a couple days off, we’ll refocus, re-energize and get back at it.”