Following a weekend win against Boston College, the Virginia men’s basketball team plays host to No. 19 NC State Tuesday evening. Both teams enter into the game in the top three of the ACC standings, and the winner will gain sole possession of second place behind Miami.
The Cavaliers (14-5, 4-2 ACC) carry a three-game winning streak into their matchup with the Wolfpack (16-4, 5-2 ACC). The run started with a 56-36 domination of Florida State on Jan. 19 and continued Thursday with a 74-58 win at Virginia Tech. Virginia prevailed Saturday, despite trailing 26-24 at the half, by coming out of halftime with a renewed focus on its post offense. The team shot 77.3 percent from the floor after the break, the highest shooting percentage in a half since shooting 78.3 percent against Georgia Tech in 1984.
“The first half we got off to a good start, but they really stepped it up going into halftime,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said. “In the second half, we were the tougher team on both ends of the floor … We were really physical and disciplined with them.”
Maintaining intensity will be vital for the Cavaliers when they square off against a very talented NC State squad. Averaging an ACC-best 79.8 points per game, the Wolfpack utilizes a high-powered offense that scores early and often. Junior forward C.J. Leslie spearheads the NC State attack, averaging 15.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. Virginia fans likely have some bad memories of Leslie, as he was responsible for 19 of NC State’s 67 points and set a career-high with 14 rebounds when the Wolfpack defeated the Cavaliers 67-64 in the quarterfinals of last year’s ACC Tournament.
To make matters worse for Virginia, Tuesday’s contest marks the third game in five days. With so little time between games, the players are hard-pressed to both rest up and prepare for their next opponent. The fact that the Wolfpack represents the staunchest opponent of the three only further weighs on the weary Cavaliers.
“It’s always a little bit of a struggle but [we’ve] got to block that out when game time comes around and just play,” sophomore guard Paul Jesperson said. “We got to do what we’ve been doing all season and that’s play great defense and work for our offensive shot.”
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, the freshman trio of guard Justin Anderson and forwards Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey has stepped up significantly in recent games. Anderson, along with junior forward Akil Mitchell, led the team in scoring 16 points against Boston College, and Nolte tallied a team- and career-high 18 points, including five 3-pointers, at Virginia Tech. Their energy and surprising maturity have powered the team through tough stretches multiple times already this year, impressing Coach Tony Bennett as well as their teammates.
“We talk so much to our young guys about being sound, being disciplined, take what the defense gives you,” Bennett said. “Same thing on the other end. In the last couple of games, and in practice, you’re seeing improvements.”
The home court could provide another advantage for Virginia. The environment at John Paul Jones Arena has sparked the Cavaliers to some great performances and a sterling 12-1 record at home, with their only loss in Charlottesville coming in the season’s first week.
“The home fans, the Wahoo nation, I appreciate them — they’re like the sixth man out there,” Evans said. “They’re energy, they get us going even when we’re in our slumps, they rise to their feet and give us a standing ovation to keep us going so we can battle and try to get a win.”
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2.