Junior forward Akil Mitchell is no Ralph Sampson, but standing tall as the team’s last remaining big man, Mitchell led the Virginia basketball team to its biggest win since Sampson patrolled the paint. The Cavaliers rewrote the record books in their 78-41 demolition of Clemson Thursday night, earning their most lopsided conference win since March 11, 1983 and setting a John Paul Jones Arena record with their 13th straight home victory.
Virginia retreated to the locker room at halftime with a 28-point lead after allowing just 10 points, its fewest total surrendered in a half since 1981. Yet after this same Clemson team upset the Cavaliers 59-44 Jan. 12 in South Carolina, junior guard Joe Harris had no interest in letting up.
“We talked so many times about how we get up and kind of let teams crawl back into it. That’s not what we wanted to have happen,” Harris said. “We had them down and we wanted to kind of seal the deal. We talked about how we wanted to beat them by 50 at halftime.”
Virginia, with its uneven season reaching a decisive stretch, continued to pound the Tigers. The team hopes it sent a message to the rest of the college basketball world with the most lopsided ACC win by any team since January 2009, bringing the Cavaliers into a tie for third place in the ACC standings with nine games to play before the ACC Tournament. No Tiger scored more than two points in the first half and the team finished with 19 turnovers and just four assists.
“We talked about how we’re playing with a poised desperation from here on out,” Harris said. “Our goal every year is to make it to the Tournament, and we understand the circumstance that we’re in.”
When coach Tony Bennett got word Tuesday that freshman forward Mike Tobey would be out indefinitely with mononucleosis — leaving Mitchell as the only true big man on the roster against the physical Tigers — he had good reason to feel some self-pity. Tobey joined senior point guard Jontel Evans and sophomores forward Darion Atkins and guard Malcolm Brogdon as key players to miss significant time this season.
“I feel like we got some kind of curse on us,” Harris said. “It always seems like at this point in the season, we get down to like seven, eight guys somehow.”
The bad news came at a time when the team could ill-afford it. Coming off a disappointing upset loss to Georgia Tech Sunday in Atlanta, the team braced for a rematch against the imposing post tandem of senior forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings. The duo pounded Virginia inside for 36 points and 20 rebounds in the teams’ earlier matchup this season, but they were held to just nine points in the rematch Thursday.
“I was concerned because of our lack of size, and their interior players,” Bennett said. “To come out and play that kind of ball on both ends of the floor certainly was good.”
Tobey’s injury forced Bennett to insert freshman guard Justin Anderson into the starting lineup at power forward and left the bench with just four scholarship players. Three of those reserves were backup point guards — redshirt freshman Teven Jones, freshman Taylor Barnette and senior Doug Browman — along with freshman forward Evan Nolte. But the composition of the roster mattered little on a night which featured one of the most dominating defensive performances of the Bennett era.
Virginia’s swarming pack-line defense held Clemson to two points in the game’s first eight minutes. On one play, Clemson freshman guard Adonis Filer slipped through a small gap in the defense and appeared open for a lay-up for a split second. But before he could put home his team’s second field goal, Anderson snuck up from behind, elevated, and and snatched the ball out of Filer’s hands for the block. At the other end, Harris drilled a jump shot as part of a personal 6-0 run to force Clemson coach Brad Brownell to call timeout with Virginia leading 14-2.
Harris was sensational in the first half, single-handedly outscoring the Tigers with 14 points. Mitchell joined Harris with double-digits in the period, finishing with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, and teaming with Harris to give the Cavaliers’ a dynamic inside-out presence on offense. Evans also contributed to the scoring outburst with his pinpoint passing, igniting the halfcourt offense.
With five minutes remaining in the first period and Virginia leading 25-10, Evans drove the lane and flipped in a lay-up. On the next possession, he drew defenders at the top of the key, dished to a cutting Harris at the free throw line and Harris rose up and dropped off a pass off to a cutting Mitchell for the easy slam.
Virginia started 0-for-9 from long range, but Harris followed Mitchell’s dunk by nailing the team’s first 3-pointer to open up the floodgates. Sophomore guard Paul Jesperson followed up that trey with a 3-pointer from the left wing and Nolte added a third consecutive 3-pointer to help the Cavaliers close the first half on a 15-0 run.
“We kind of saw that they were getting frustrated and we kind of just smelled blood in the water,” Mitchell said. “We just kept attacking and shots kept falling for us.”
Evans was a catalyst all night, dishing out eight assists including five for 3-point field goals while attempting just four shots. He helped the team put on a show down the stretch for the 9,942 in attendance by assisting on five straight baskets and helping extend the lead to as much as 41-points.
Evans dished to a wide-open Nolte once and Barnette twice for three straight long balls to extend the lead to 68-33. Evans then trotted past halfcourt and suddenly lobbed a pass to the rim where Anderson skied and threw down a backwards two-handed jam for the highlight of the night, sending the delirious home crowd into a tizzy.
“There’s just something about this building,” Mitchell said. “Especially with this team, when we get energized and we get going, we’re a completely different team. Now we just have to learn how to take that on the road with us and create our own energy.”
Virginia will be at Maryland Sunday to face the Terrapins in College Park at 1 p.m. The Cavaliers are just 1-3 in ACC road contests this season.