The Virginia basketball team outplayed Florida State in every way imaginable for a full 40 minutes Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena. But one 15-second sequence best encapsulated the near-complete transformation the Cavaliers have undergone since senior point guard Jontel Evans returned from a foot injury.
Junior forward Akil Mitchell drove unguarded through the heart of the paint and finished with a rim-rocking one-handed jam to give the Cavaliers an 18-point lead. On the other end of the court, freshmen forwards Evan Nolte and Justin Anderson swatted away two would-be dunks inside by seemingly wide-open Seminoles. Evans then calmly and quickly led the break, drawing the defense before setting up Anderson on the left wing for the team’s seventh 3-pointer of the opening period and a 33-13 advantage — to the delight of the raucous 12,303-person crowd.
“It energized the crowd, and when the crowd gets into it, we get into it and it’s a lot of fun to play,” Mitchell said of the sequence. “Justin hitting that three was a big shot and it just lit the place on fire.”
Virginia (12-5, 2-2 ACC) emphatically ended its seven-game losing streak to Florida State (10-7, 2-2 ACC) with a 56-36 demolition of the Seminoles and snapped one of its worst scoring droughts in decades. Despite Evans’ return, the Cavaliers had scored just 96 total points in road losses to Wake Forest and Clemson, the team’s lowest two-game total in back-to-back contests since 1992.
Virginia scored an efficient 56 points on 22-of-45 shooting, including 7-of-9 from 3-point range in the first half, to improve to 11-1 at home this season. The Cavaliers also held an opponent under 40 points for the third time this season to earn their first win against the Seminoles since February 2007.
Even as sophomore forward Darion Atkins became the third Cavalier this season to miss time with a lower extremity injury — a “stress reaction” in his right shin, according to team officials — Evans’ veteran leadership provided the perfect spark for a team that has teetered on the edge of a breakthrough for weeks. The Cavaliers scored 33 points off sharp-shooting performances by sophomore guard Paul Jesperson, junior guard Joe Harris and Nolte to grab an 18-point edge at the break.
“I’ve never seen those guys shoot like that,” Evans said. “I mean, they’re good shooters but tonight they were great shooters.”
The first half of the Cavaliers’ season was characterized by Harris’ and Mitchell’s dominance, a quick transition by four game-ready freshmen and the typical swarming pack-line defense that has become a staple under coach Tony Bennett. But perhaps nothing on the court could offer more solace than what was waiting on the bench.
Evans made his third consecutive start, scoring six points and adding five rebounds in 28 minutes. The stat sheet does not fully capture his contribution. Time after time, Evans found spot-up shooters for open looks from beyond the arc. Four of his five first-half assists resulted in 3-point field goals, and his quickness and decision-making catalyzed a half-court offense that had been largely dormant for weeks. He matched a career-best in ACC play with seven assists for the game and moved into 10th all-time in school history with 323 career assists.
“Jontel is so good at getting into the paint and creating shots for guys like me and Paul and Evan,” Harris said. “He draws a lot of attention just because he’s able to break guys down and it makes it easier for a shooter when you have a point guard like Jontel.”
Harris scored a game-high 17 points including three 3-pointers, and Mitchell added 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Virginia’s freshmen, who have averaged more than 22 points per game this season — the most from Cavalier freshman players since 2003-04 — added just 12 points, but their contributions on defense proved key. Freshmen Mike Tobey, Teven Jones, Anderson and Nolte — who started in place of Atkins — helped hold the Seminoles to just 15 first-half points, the fewest by a Cavalier opponent in the opening period since 1996.
Virginia, which entered the game second in the nation in scoring defense at 51.6 points per contest, frustrated the Seminoles all game. Florida State made just 1-of-15 shots from beyond the arc, had 18 turnovers and just five assists. Florida State’s 36 points comprised the third-lowest total by a Cavalier opponent in the shot-clock era and the fewest in John Paul Jones Arena history.
“I think it was just good defense,” Evans said. “Usually they don’t really turn the ball over, and we rushed them on offense, and they were taking contested shots and missing and turning it over which was good for us.”
Senior guard Michael Snaer paced Florida State with nine points, but the Seminoles would draw no closer than 14 points in the second half. Snaer opened the scoring by splitting two Cavalier defenders and elevating over Mitchell, finishing with a smooth left-handed finger roll for Florida State’s only lead of the game at 2-0.
Virginia led 11-9 with 14 minutes remaining in the first half, and took control with their best basketball of the season during the next 11 minutes. Virginia scored 10 consecutive points, including 3-pointers by Harris and Anderson, before baskets by Snaer and junior forward Okaro White stopped the bleeding. The Cavaliers followed that run with another 12-0 spurt, bookended by Anderson’s block and transition 3-pointer off the feed from Evans.
“To just get things rolling offensively at the beginning of the game, it’s always huge,” Harris said. “Momentum-wise, I think that carried on for the rest of the half and into the second half.”
The near-constant screams of the fans in attendance faded in the final minutes, but not because of a lull in the home team’s play. Seminole redshirt junior forward Terrance Shannon was removed by a stretcher after an suffering a serious neck injury. He spent Saturday night at the University Hospital.