With the Virginia men’s basketball team holding a far from secure 56-55 lead and 26.1 seconds showing on the clock, Jontel Evans found himself in the same situation he had been in when the first half came to a close — at the free throw line. After missing all three of his attempts in his first two trips to the line, the senior point guard stepped to the line in the game’s most crucial moment to shoot what he called “probably the biggest two free throws of my basketball career.” And this time he made them both, propelling Virginia to a 58-55 upset of No. 19 NC State.
Coach Tony Bennett did not plan for the pass-first floor general — who held only two points but seven assists at that point — to be the one with the ball in his hands as the shot clock wound down, but a stifling defensive stand by the Wolfpack (16-5, 5-3 ACC) prevented him from dishing to an open teammate. Nevertheless, Evans came through with the game’s outcome hanging in the balance.
“My concentration was unbelievable,” Evans said. “I tuned out the crowd, the score and everything — went through my progressions and knocked [them] down.”
Down 58-55, the Wolfpack had an opportunity to tie but an erratic offensive possession sealed their fate. With 5.2 seconds left, junior forward C.J. Leslie fumbled the ball out of bounds, but the ball bounced off a Virginia (15-5, 5-2 ACC) player, keeping NC State alive. On the in-bound pass, senior forward Scott Wood, one of the ACC’s best three-point marksmen, received the ball but promptly air-balled a rushed shot.
“[Sophomore guard] Paul [Jesperson] got a hand on it,” Bennett said. “He did a good job … We were debating a little bit, should we foul? Shouldn’t we? Unless you practice that, it’s a little bit tricky.”
The close finish and 12th consecutive home win was the result of a strong Cavalier comeback effort that began just before halftime. The Wolfpack built its largest lead of 11 points with 1:42 to go in the first half and appeared in control of the game for nearly the entirety of the first 18 minutes.
“I don’t know if it was the fatigue of the amount of games in a short time, but I do know the physicalness and athleticism of NC State was more than we have seen all year,” Bennett said. “You could see that in the first half.”
The Virginia offense got off to a rocky start, falling behind 15-7 when NC State freshman guard Tyler Lewis buried a 3-pointer. Midway through the half, a series of three possessions — two for the Cavaliers and one for the Wolfpack sandwiched in between — lifted Virginia into the game.
Junior guard Joe Harris finally ignited the Cavaliers as the team pushed the ball up court — the half-court setup had proven mostly futile early on — and knocked down a three before the Wolfpack had a chance to set its defense. The bucket by Harris closed the deficit to 17-14 and woke up a slumbering crowd.
With John Paul Jones Arena at a noise level it had yet to come anywhere near until then, the fans were easily riled by a foul called against the Cavaliers on the ensuing defensive possession. When the Wolfpack inbounded the ball again, Virginia stood its ground and forced a shot clock violation.
Back at the offensive end, Harris further sparked the Cavaliers by scrapping for a loose ball and hitting a shot to close the gap to 17-16. NC State responded with a run to mount their lead.
In the second half, the Cavaliers came roaring back. Freshman forward Mike Tobey brought the Cavaliers to a 33-31 deficit when he converted a 3-point play after drawing a foul on a ferocious dunk — a move indicative of his powerful play against NC State’s rugged interior players. Soon thereafter, Tobey followed with a jumper in the paint to give the Cavaliers their first lead at 38-37. Tobey’s emergence was an important factor in counteracting the duo of Leslie and senior forward Richard Howell, who combined for 32 points and 25 rebounds for NC State.
For the rest of the second half, the teams remained close as Virginia’s typically dominant defense showed up in full form. Relentless freshman guard Justin Anderson epitomized the Cavaliers’ intensity in fighting their way back when he sprinted back on defense and swatted away a layup attempt by freshman forward T.J. Warren.
Harris carried the offensive load from there, bringing his total to a game-high 22 points.
“It was that stage of the game where my defender was starting to wear down a little bit, and you have to expose them when you see a weakness like that,” Harris said.
Now, the Cavaliers — who appeared to have plenty of their own weaknesses when they lost consecutive games to Wake Forest and Clemson earlier this month — sit in second place of the conference standings, ahead of the much-hyped preseason ACC favorite NC State.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” Mitchell said. “We’re playing good ball.”