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Cavaliers take on in-state rival Virginia Tech

Team overcomes injury-prone season, hopes to continue dominant home winning streak

Coach Tony Bennett did not hesitate when he saw freshman wunderkind Justin Anderson cough up a turnover with a showboating behind-the-back-dribble in the Virginia basketball team’s 78-41 blowout win against Clemson last Thursday. Bennett pointed to the bench, and told his 18-year-old phenom, “That’s not what we need.”

That same scene could have played out very differently with any other team. After the game, a still excited Anderson told reporters, “I love that moment.”

“It actually lifted me up,” Anderson said. “It felt good because I felt like that was one selfish moment on my behalf on my team, and I don’t want to ever be like that.”

The Virginia (17-6, 7-3 ACC) basketball team’s surprising success this season has been built on one principle: All for one; one for all. Individual displays such as Anderson’s highlight dunk later that game — which earned him the number two spot on “Sportscenter’s Top 10 Plays” — have been secondary to selflessness.

That mindset has been the driving force behind the surprising success of Bennett’s freshmen-laden squad. The ACC Preseason Coaches Poll pegged the Cavaliers to finish seventh in the conference. That poll was even conducted before the extent of injuries to guards sophomore Malcolm Brogdon and senior Jontel Evans was known and before forwards sophomore Darion Atkins and freshman Mike Tobey were sidelined indefinitely with their own ailments.

Instead, a team that was supposed to be languishing in the lower middle of the ACC has overcome injuries to win six of seven games and move into sole possession of third place in the conference — two games ahead of the coaches’ top ACC choice, NC State. Led by the nation’s third best scoring defense, one of its most talented freshmen classes in decades and a mindset that matches the attitude of its coach, Virginia finds itself stating an ever-improving case for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament with eight games still remaining in the regular season.

“We’ve just got to keep battling, keep swarming, keep doing the things we’re doing, and playing together like we are,” Bennett said of the injuries. “We must put a premium on playing smart, not getting in foul trouble, using our trap, using our choke.”

Injuries have largely defined but not derailed the 2012-13 season. First, foot injuries plagued the team’s backcourt, keeping Evans out for nine of the team’s first 13 games and ending Brogdon’s season before it had even started. Next, a shin injury has limited Atkins to sporadic appearances the past few weeks, leaving a void in the frontcourt. Most recently, Tobey was diagnosed with mononucleosis and is out indefinitely, leaving junior forward Akil Mitchell as the only scholarship player with experience as a post player and forcing Anderson to learn the power forward position on the fly.

“If you were to have told me three years ago when I was coming in that I would be playing 40 minutes a game as a center, I wouldn’t have believed you,” the 6-foot-8 Mitchell said.

While selflessness and an emphasis on defensive fundamentals have orchestrated a strong season in Charlottesville, things have gone south quickly for the Cavaliers’ rival to the southwest. Tuesday night’s game sets Virginia against a Virginia Tech (11-12, 2-8 ACC) team reeling from six straight losses. Senior Erick Green, a sublime individual scorer, has been among the best guards in the nation. But even as he dominates games individually, the numbers in the standings tell a different story.

The Hokies have lost those six straight games by a combined 59 points beginning with a 74-58 thrashing by Virginia Jan. 24. First-year coach James Johnson has been unable to turn around the program following last season’s 4-12 conference record that led to the dismissal of former coach Seth Greenberg, who guided the team for nine years. Virginia Tech ranks fourth in the ACC in scoring, at 71.5 points per game this season, but is allowing a conference-worst 73.0 points.

The Hokies’ season-long struggles are epitomized by their past two losses at home against Georgia Tech and Maryland. Green lit up Cassell Colliseum for 28 points against the Yellow Jackets and 29 points against the Terrapins, but his team lost both contests by a combined 15 points, falling to dead-last in the ACC standings with their eighth conference defeat.

Virginia’s win against those same Terrapins Sunday, meanwhile, was the team’s seventh ACC win this year — one more than Virginia Tech has had in the past two seasons combined. They did it with four starters scoring double-digit points and by becoming the first team this season to outrebound Maryland, despite missing the 6-foot-11 Tobey and with the recovering Atkins playing just seven minutes. Perhaps most impressively for the Cavaliers, they did it away from home, moving to a mediocre 3-4 in road contests this season.

The team’s vulnerability away from Charlottesville has been apparent, but its dominance at home has been even more striking. John Paul Jones Arena has been a nightmare for visiting teams, who have won just once in 14 tries. Virginia has won 13 straight home games since a devastating early-season setback against Delaware, setting the all-time arena record for consecutive victories in the process.

“We’re lights out when we’re at home, but when we don’t have our fans behind us, it’s a different team,” Mitchell said.

A little more than one month remains before the ACC Tournament begins in Greensboro, N.C., giving the Cavaliers time to get healthy before postseason play. The task for Bennett’s team is to maintain the level of play that has put the team in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth despite losses to CAA teams George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion early this season.

“It’s not the end of the year, and if we can play like that, we’ll be alright,” Bennett said after Thursday’s blowout against Clemson. “Hopefully we’ll get some guys back and we’ll just keep plugging.”

Tipoff at John Paul Jones is scheduled for 7 p.m.