Cavalier bench breaks Chanticleers' back
Nolte's 3-pointers, Gill's 17 points propel Virginia past Coastal Carolina
RALEIGH, N.C. — Trailing Coastal Carolina 31-21 late in the first half — the largest deficit faced by a No. 1 seed against a No. 16 seed since 1989 — the Cavaliers were not playing their game.
More alarming, according to coach Tony Bennett, though, was the “bickering” between the Virginia teammates who had been so cohesive since conference play began.
“I just told them [at halftime]… ‘You’re an unselfish team,’” Bennett said. “’When you’ve played your best ball, you’re unified. Now you’re going to start fracturing?’ I said, ‘You have to come together in a way that you haven’t all year, because of what’s at stake.’”
Bennett then made a few notable changes to his lineup in the second half, among them starting sophomore forward Anthony Gill in place of sophomore center Mike Tobey.
Gill — who had a breakout ACC Tournament, averaging 13.7 points per game — proved vital to the Cavaliers’ second-half comeback. After playing 10 minutes in the first period, Bennett rode Gill for 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting and five rebounds in 19 minutes after halftime.
His dunk to open the second half effectively put Coastal Carolina on notice: the real Virginia had finally come out to play. Gill finished with a game-high 17 points, the fifth consecutive game he has scored in double figures and seventh time leading Virginia in scoring this season.
“You look at [Gill] as if he’s a starter,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. “Look at the guys that really hurt us, Gill, [sophomore forward Evan] Nolte — those are the two guys. They’re coming off the bench and they hurt us — you have to give those guys credit.”
Nolte averaged 3.6 minutes per game over Virginia’s last five games and did not play in the ACC Tournament title game or against then-No. 4 Syracuse. But when senior forward Akil Mitchell picked up his third foul with 8:53 left to play, Bennett inserted Nolte in his stead at the four.
Bennett credited associate head coach Ritchie McKay with the idea to match Nolte, usually utilized as a three, against Coastal Carolina sophomore forward Badou Diagne. Noticing that Diagne was floating to the perimeter rather than posting up, the coaching staff believed Nolte could stretch the Chanticleer defense while also holding his own against Diagne on the other end.
McKay’s idea paid instant dividends for the Cavaliers.
Nolte took all of one minute to surpass his season average of 2.5 points per game, nailing a 3-pointer on his first shot attempt of the night. Forty-two seconds later, ‘Nol-Trey’ struck again from beyond the arc to take an 8-point lead — a pair of buckets that Ellis said “broke [Coastal Carolina’s] back.”
“We needed that,” Bennett said. “Who knows, I might not be sitting here if he hadn’t knocked down some of those shots. To see him give us that lift was big.”
The sophomore reserve capped his night by pump faking behind the 3-point line and sidestepping an airborne Chanticleer defender, sinking a long jumper just inside the arc. Nolte finished with 8 points on 3-of-4 shooting.
“I don’t know if it’s hit me yet,” Nolte said after the game. “Especially if your minutes fluctuate, whenever you can come in and help your team like that, it means a lot. Also, when you’re doing that, everybody around you is happy for you. That makes it even more special.”
In a sense, it was a typical Virginia game; a bench player entered the game and ignited a game-changing Cavalier run. That mantle most often falls to sophomore guard and ACC Sixth Man of the Year Justin Anderson, and more recently, Gill.
But with Anderson struggling, averaging 2.0 points per game in the ACC Tournament and held scoreless by the Chanticleers, Virginia needed a new catalyst Friday night.
“Our team is very big on buying in and I think Evan has done a great job along with a couple other guys on our bench,” Anderson said. “A lot of us could play a lot of time or start… anywhere else, but we bought in and we want to touch something special. We understand what it takes to do that and Evan is just another guy who’s bought in to ‘whatever it takes.’”
A season ago, Nolte coming off the bench to splash 3-pointers was hardly notable. He hit 42 of his 108 3-point attempts for 38.9 percent while playing 19.8 minutes per game. This season in a more limited role, however, Nolte had attempted just 48 3-pointers entering Friday’s game —making 15 for 31.3 percent — while watching his minutes decline by over half to 9.0 per game.
Still, Nolte has managed to remain confident throughout the season, stepping up when the Cavaliers desperately needed a spark.
“I always have the mentality of staying ready,” Nolte said. “If the game doesn’t go well, I’m always ready to come in off the bench. Being a shooter, you try to come in with confidence and don’t try to hesitate.”
Nolte’s reduction in minutes has come in part as a result of the team’s considerable depth this season, as Bennett began tightening his core rotation during conference play. Virginia has a stable of sharpshooters in the starting lineup with the return of sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon this season and the emergence of freshman point guard London Perrantes’ as a long-range threat, in addition to senior guard Joe Harris.
And though depth is a problem many coaches would do unscrupulous things to have, keeping players happy while simultaneously convincing them to accept their role is a significant challenge, according to Bennett.
“That’s the hardest thing for me as a coach,” Bennett said. “All these guys desperately want to play. They work so hard [and] you can’t play them all… But it’s the greatest lesson in saying ‘stay ready,’ because in this setting [Nolte] was the guy that helped us get to this next round. You’re always a play away, a foul away, an injury away from stepping into that spot.”