With all apologies to Tony Bennett and the burgeoning young Virginia men’s basketball team, a scant few will remember Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 for the Cavaliers’ 67-51 victory against the mighty Phoenix of Wisconsin-Green Bay. That Virginia even attracted 9,600 spirited fans attests to excitement gradually building around this program, considering the game coincided with Alabama’s BCS-clinching SEC Championship victory and Green Bay stands as much of a chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament as Roger Goodell does of buying a retirement home in New Orleans. It didn’t help that the game rolled along on the heels of Michael Rocco’s abrupt release from the Cavalier football team and Jovan Belcher’s heartbreaking murder-suicide — the type of stunning tragedy that reminds us sports fanatics of that pesky thing called perspective.
Nevertheless, as the Cavaliers dribbled out an ostensibly trivial game, I felt inexplicably privileged to be there. On a day that elicited the entire spectrum of possible reactions to sports, Virginia’s performance subtly reinforced everything compelling, authentic and important about these silly games that absorb an inordinate amount of our attention. The only tragedy is that few will ever appreciate it.
My gradual epiphany began in the first place thanks to junior forward Akil Mitchell. Mitchell tallied his career-high 20 points and nine rebounds against a Green Bay frontcourt with Brian Scalabrine-like athleticism in what Bennett politely termed a “mismatch.” But it was the swagger with which he blended speed, power, and finesse to embarrass the Phoenix in just 26 minutes of action that truly grasped my attention. A far cry from the explosive but tentative role player from a year ago, Mitchell has responded to the challenge of replacing Mike Scott with vigor and has begun the critical transformation from a player who can impose his will on a game to a player who expects to.
While Mitchell continued to chip away at his previously tepid support with work ethic and self-assertion, senior point guard Jontel Evans continued his quest to simply return to his effective 2011-12 form. Evans scored his only basket on a post-up even he characterized as “crazy,” but it was his seven assists, five steals and infusion of pace into the usually meandering Virginia offense that belied the usual expectations output of a speed player who broke his foot two months ago.
“He had five steals, and I thought he locked in there and guarded,” coach Tony Bennett said. “His ability to put pressure on the defense and get to the paint, especially after the ball rotates, makes a difference for us.”
Hearing Evans discuss his frustration with the recovery impressed upon me another crucial aspect of his return other than his considerable impact on the court. Senior seasons are the most memorable for many athletes but also the most terrifying — they carry with them the immense pressure to cement a legacy, to achieve something that utterly outstrips everything else from before. The broken foot and sluggish start to this season disrupted Evans’ banner year through no fault of his own, rendering his expected dream season an exercise in extreme patience. Evans started to make the best of a situation over which he maddeningly had no control Saturday, unwittingly relaying a crucial message about patience and persistence during unfair times.
I could rattle off several other fascinating and salient individual stories: Joe Harris’ evolution into a number one option, Darion Atkins’ sudden promise and the freshmen growing up before our eyes immediately spring to mind. These individual stories, though, ultimately surrendered to the team narrative Saturday, providing yet another nugget of significance in an “insignificant” game.
After holding a slim 31-27 lead at halftime, the Cavaliers probably could have slogged through the rest of the game and still ousted a plucky but overmatched Phoenix team, just as they did during the Nov. 12 win against Fairfield that was harder to watch than the fourth Indiana Jones movie. Instead, they played some of their most unselfish offensive basketball of the season in outscoring the Phoenix 36-24 in the second half and shooting 60.0 percent with 11 assists.
”I thought we were more patient in the second half,” Bennett said. “The ball swung outside, but we got it inside.”
Frankly, Virginia holds as much of a shot at winning an NCAA Championship as I do of successfully convincing my friends to call me “Fritzy Sportswriting” a la Johnny “Football” Manziel. Still, if they can trust each other to the extent they did for 15 glorious second-half minutes Friday — punctuated by a selfless Atkins assist on a Harris 3-pointer and sweet Evans dish to Mitchell for a dunk that staked Virginia to a 67-50 lead with 5:18 remaining — they’ll give everyone from the Green Bays to the Dukes of the basketball world a fight.
After the game ended, and I sat in the press room contemplating how in the world I could express my strange, sudden gratitude for a seemingly ordinary game, Bennett inadvertently left me with something else to think about after he completed a sweep of the Wisconsin teams where his father, Dick Bennett, excelled as a coach.
“He said, ‘Tell the young boys that they’ve made an old man very happy,’” Bennett said of his conversation with his father after the Wisconsin victory.
It was not a tear-jerking moment by any means. And perhaps I only dwell on it as part of the undiscerning fraternity of sons who have ever lived to make their fathers proud. Yet I will always value the press conference after this little non-conference contest for reminding me of my own dad, the man to whom I unilaterally owe my love for sports.
Sure, I’m a hopeless sap for projecting life lessons on a game that wouldn’t make the SportsCenter cut if the show lasted four hours. But as I exited John Paul Jones Arena, I thought about that word “perspective” that we sportswriters and fans so brazenly toss around. There is an inherent danger in letting the SEC Championship-type games and even Belcher-type tragedies convince you that games such as Virginia’s win don’t matter. Every so often, games such as this one rekindle that simple inspiration that the sport itself can provide, that catharsis from cynicism that we need every now and then to survive in this kooky life.
And that’s why I’ll remember Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 as the day I was lucky enough to see a Virginia-Green Bay basketball game.