When the Virginia men’s basketball team announced earlier this year that it would host a trio of mid-major teams for the chance to advance to the NIT Season Tip-Off Finals at New York’s famous Madison Square Garden, many projected the squad’s qualification as a formality.
After scuffling in a 54-45 victory against Fairfield Monday evening, however, Virginia suddenly appeared vulnerable.
And by the time Delaware was putting the finishing touches on a 59-53 victory in front of 8,490 appalled John Paul Jones Arena patrons Tuesday evening, the “formality” on Virginia’s schedule had turned, shockingly, into a lost opportunity.
“It’s not the end of the world, but it’s an opportunity that would have been great for our young team, a great experience to play,” coach Tony Bennett said of his team’s failure to earn a trip to New York. “… Delaware earned it. We couldn’t.”
Junior guard Joe Harris scored a game-high 20 points on 7-of-19 shooting to lead the Cavaliers (1-2, 0-0 ACC), and junior forward Akil Mitchell registered his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 13 rebounds, both career-highs.
Sophomore forward Darion Atkins scored 11 second-half points to lead Virginia’s reserves.
“It’s a heartbreaker,” Atkins said. “We really wanted to go. Obviously, we all know that we’re better than Delaware. We can’t take it back.”
After laboring offensively for most of the lethargic opening stretch, the Blue Hens (2-1, 0-0 CAA) erupted for a 24-9 half-ending run to carry a commanding 28-15 lead into the break.
Virginia shot a woeful 6-for-27 in the first period, including 0-for-9 from beyond the three-point arc, and committed nine turnovers, missing so many easy looks and open shots in the early going that players became flustered, Bennett said, and allowed Delaware to push the tempo and develop an offensive rhythm of its own.
“I thought we were terrific defensively for about ten minutes,” Bennett said. “… But when you’re struggling to score, that puts a lot of pressure on your defense, and they’ve got some guys who are very talented off the dribble who can do some things, and they really extended the lead.”
Delaware sophomore guard Jarvis Threatt’s three-pointer with 17:00 remaining in the second-half vaulted the Blue Hens to a seemingly insurmountable 35-17 lead for a still-frigid Virginia squad. But the Cavaliers fought back.
Mitchell’s put-back dunk and nifty assist to Atkins reinvigorated Virginia and keyed a 25-6 run, which freshman forward Evan Nolte bookended with a three-pointer to provide the team a 42-41 lead, its first and only advantage of the half.
“I don’t know what clicked in my head in the second half, but I just came out playing my game,” Atkins said. “Obviously, it shows I wasn’t playing well in the first half.”
Delaware responded immediately and forcefully to the Virginia run, engineering an 8-0 spurt of its own to reassert control and regain a 49-42 advantage with 6:14 remaining, puncturing the Cavaliers’ ballooning momentum.
“That really hurts,” Harris said. “You feel like you have a lot of momentum, especially making a comeback like we did, just to see them make a comeback of their own.”
Virginia clawed back once more to trim the deficit to 51-50 on Harris’ layup with 3:11 remaining, but another Threatt jumper and free throw following Cavalier freshman guard Justin Anderson’s turnover and foul restored Delaware to a 54-50 advantage. The Cavaliers then flubbed their possession with 1:29 remaining to suffer a shot-clock violation. The play, coming out of a timeout, was intended to screen Harris for an open look at a jumper.
“We didn’t execute it,” Bennett said. “There wasn’t a screen where there was supposed to be. And obviously the guys got a little scattered with the ball and weren’t aware of [the shot clock]. It was just poor execution on a set.”
Delaware junior guard Devon Saddler iced the trip to Madison Square Garden for Delaware with five clutch free-throws in the final 45 seconds. Saddler scored all of his team-leading 15 points in the second half, combining with Threatt for a perimeter threat which complemented senior forward Jamelle Hagins’ inside punch. Hagins finished with 10 points and 16 rebounds.
_Game Notes: _
—Senior guard Jontel Evans made his season debut after missing Virginia’s first two games with a stress fracture in his right foot. Evans played just three minutes, committing two turnovers without scoring.