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Cavaliers chase down Stags, clinch 54-45 win

Junior guard Joe Harris scored 11 of his game-high 15 points in the second half, and Virginia relied on a suffocating defensive effort in the second period to preserve a 54-45 win against Fairfield in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off Monday night. The Cavaliers (1-1, 0-0 ACC) will play either Delaware or Penn Tuesday night to qualify for the NIT Season Tip-Off Finals next week at Madison Square Garden.

After allowing the Stags (1-1, 0-0 MAAC) to shoot 52.2 percent from the field in the first half and a sizzling 6-of-11 from three-point range, Virginia limited Fairfield to just five field goals on 24 shots in the second half. The Cavaliers captured their first lead of the game at 33-32 with Harris’ midrange shot at the 17:04 mark of the second half. Despite their frigid shooting, the Stags clung to life until junior forward Akil Mitchell’s layup with 4:08 to go all but sealed Virginia’s victory.

In a game many projected as a cakewalk for the Cavaliers, Fairfield led by as many as seven in the first half and frustrated a languid Virginia unit on both ends of the floor. Defensively, coach Tony Bennett’s young squad struggled with the Stags’ speedy guards and timing off screens and picks, ceding several wide-open three-pointers—including three from freshman forward Josip Mikulic.

Virginia committed seven turnovers and missed several simplistic shots, with the starting five failing to register a field goal until sophomore guard Paul Jesperson hit a three with 3:25 showing on the first half clock. Only Fairfield’s eight turnovers and freshman forward Evan Nolte’s nine points, two of which came from his steal and layup under the basket to beat the first half buzzer, kept Virginia within a 30-28 deficit at the break.

Nolte finished with 11 points on four-of-six shooting in 28 minutes of play to complement Harris, while Mitchell scored a career-high 12 points and tallied eight rebounds in 33 minutes of action. Mikulic paced the Stags with 13 and seven boards.