The Virginia men’s basketball team is flying high after Tuesday’s thrilling win against No. 19 NC State. The Cavaliers overcame an 11-point deficit in their 58-55 victory, holding the Wolfpack to their second lowest scoring total of the season. Now, as the team prepares for Georgia Tech, it looks to build on its four-game winning streak in Atlanta this Sunday.
In typical Virginia (15-5, 5-2 ACC) fashion, defense made the difference Tuesday night. NC State entered the contest averaging 79.8 points per game, but the Wolfpack were held to just 37.7 percent shooting and 55 points. Georgia Tech (11-8, 1-6 ACC) enters Sunday’s contest averaging 63.7 points per game, but the Yellow Jackets will have their work cut out for them against the Cavaliers’ stifling defense. Virginia’s opponents are averaging just 51.2 points per game, the second lowest total in the nation.
Although the Yellow Jackets’ defense is not nearly as imposing as the Cavaliers’, they have the luxury of facing a Virginia offense that ranks dead last in the ACC in scoring at 62.6 per game. In a sluggish first half Tuesday, the Cavaliers managed just 24 points on 37 percent shooting. But aided by the energy of a raucous home crowd of 10,977, Virginia stormed back to earn its first win against a ranked opponent this season.
“The crowd was pretty fun,” junior guard Joe Harris said. “Coming in, we knew it was going to be a crazy atmosphere. To come out with a win is huge, and obviously we enjoy it a lot.”
Unfortunately for Harris and the rest of the Cavaliers, Sunday’s game will not be in the friendly confines of John Paul Jones Arena, where the Cavaliers have won 12 straight games, but at the recently renovated McCamish Pavillion in Atlanta. Virginia’s only two conference losses this season both came on the road against Wake Forest and Clemson, but the team does have two key victories in hostile territory against Wisconsin and Virginia Tech. In both of those wins, Virginia led at halftime, so improving on the team’s first-half weaknesses seen during its NC State matchup will be crucial against Georgia Tech.
“We knew the first half we didn’t play particularly well offensively,” Harris said, “But at the same time, we didn’t play the best defense in the first half, either. We gave up too many second chance points, and they bullied us around and out-toughed us.”
Harris led the team Tuesday with 22 points — a personal best in ACC competition — and was followed by junior forward Akil Mitchell, who had 14 points in addition to posting a game high 12 rebounds. Freshman forward Mike Tobey also had a big game with 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in his 20 minutes off the bench.
“He’s got terrific touch,” coach Tony Bennett said of the freshman, “I think his length bothered [senior forward Richard] Howell some. Mike’s continuing to improve, and again, he is certainly a threat on the blocks, and I love it that he had seven rebounds.”
Tobey’s classmates made significant contributions as well. Freshmen forward Evan Nolte and guard Justin Anderson played 13 and 18 effective minutes respectively. Anderson’s defense against Wolfpack junior forward C.J. Leslie was critical, while Nolte knocked down a 3-pointer with 7:47 left to pull Virginia within two. Bennett’s young players have been handed much responsibility in a season plagued by early injuries, but they have thrived under the pressure.
“We count on big contributions out of each one of them,” Harris said, “If [redshirt freshman guard Teven Jones] is only playing a couple minutes or he’s playing 25, we expect the same thing out of him night in and night out. That goes for all of them.”
Virginia fans enjoyed the brief return of sophomore forward Darion Atkins Tuesday. Atkins, who has a stress reaction in his right leg, played only six minutes, but he has averaged 4.1 rebounds and a team-high 1.5 blocks per game this season. It is unclear how many minutes he will be able to play Sunday, but his presence in the post could provide a big lift.
Georgia Tech is coming off a 63-60 loss to Clemson Tuesday evening. The Yellow Jackets had two chances to tie the score with under 20 seconds remaining, but senior guard Mfon Udofia missed a late free throw and redshirt junior guard Brandon Reed missed a last-second 3-point attempt. The loss dropped Georgia Tech to 1-6 in the ACC, tying them with Boston College for the conference’s worst record. Although the Cavaliers have the edge on paper, their recent history suggests they should not overlook the Yellow Jackets.
Virginia lost 55-52 to Wake Forest Jan. 9 and fell 59-44 to Clemson three days later. Those two games — along with three losses to Colonial Athletic Association opponents — have made clear the importance of maintaining the same energy level against every foe. Since dropping back-to-back road contests, the Cavaliers have won four straight games to surge into sole possession of second place in the ACC, demonstrating the young team’s potential to compete in 2013.
“We’ve been thinking [we could do things this] year from the get-go,” Mitchell said, “We’ve always known we have a good team, it was just a matter of getting things going with some young guys, kind of putting the pieces together.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. and the game will be aired on ESPNU.