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Virginia to take on North Carolina

Road game to test Cavaliers' recent invincibility at John Paul Jones Arena

Within the familiar confines of John Paul Jones Arena, the Virginia men’s basketball team is virtually unstoppable. In fact, the Cavaliers (18-6, 8-3 ACC) have dropped only one game at home all season, a Nov. 13 loss to Delaware. Since then they have posted 14 consecutive wins at JPJ and ridden this dominance to a third-place standing in the ACC. With the conference tournament only a month away, however, Virginia must prove its mettle against talented rivals in unfriendly territory, starting with Saturday’s contest at North Carolina.

The Cavaliers are coming off a 73-55 trouncing of state rival Virginia Tech, their second victory against the Hokies this season and the latest in a long string of home successes. Though not necessarily known for its offensive prowess — the team averages 63.7 points per game, 11th in the ACC — Virginia posted its third consecutive score of 70 or more points. Junior guard Joe Harris posted a career-high 26 points and provided the initial spark for the Cavaliers with three consecutive 3-pointers to open the game in a scintillating first half.

“Joe is the best shooter on the team,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said after the game. “I’ve seen Joe shoot the ball and be aggressive, but I’ve never seen him be aggressive like he was tonight. It was just in his eyes. You could see his killer mindset and that he wanted to get the team going on offense. That’s what he did.”

Harris has impressed all year for coach Tony Bennett’s squad, averaging 16.3 points per game and shooting a searing 48.4 percent for 3-pointers, which ranks first in the ACC. But he is not Virginia’s only weapon. The players’ unselfish mentality is what Bennett credits for their recent offensive success.

“Obviously we’re shooting the ball well,” Bennett said. “[We’re] sharing the ball; it’s an unselfish group. Joe being efficient like he is, you look at his last two stat games, and from an efficiency standpoint, it’s terrific. I thought [junior forward] Akil [Mitchell] was all over the glass, and did some really good things. We had eight fast break points, and some points off turnovers, which helped us. There’s a nice blend of offense going on besides Joe just shooting threes.”

Of course, one cannot discuss this season’s success without lauding Virginia’s stifling defense. At 54.3 points per game allowed, the team’s scoring defense is the best in the conference. Virginia Tech was held to 34.6 percent shooting Tuesday, and standout senior guard Erick Green mustered only a single point in the first half. In the teams’ first meeting, he scored 25 of his 35 points on field goals, but half of his 22 points Tuesday came via the free throw line.

“It was pretty solid team defense on him, and Jontel [Evans] was very strong and quick,” Bennett said. “Green got a couple open looks that he didn’t hit, but there weren’t a lot of them.”

In their last game against North Carolina (16-7, 6-4 ACC), the Cavaliers pulled off a second-half comeback to win 61-52 in front of a sellout home crowd. It marked the Tar Heels’ first-ever loss at JPJ. Still, much like Virginia, North Carolina becomes a different team at home: Only one of the team’s seven losses, last Saturday’s 68-59 fall to No. 3 Miami, occurred at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.

The Tar Heels matched the Hurricanes during the first half, but Miami’s intensity in the second half propelled the squad to a lead it would maintain despite a few near-comebacks from North Carolina. Virginia’s game plan Sunday will try to mimic Miami’s. Without the lift of an enthusiastic home crowd, the Cavaliers need to come out of the gates firing.

“We need to do the same thing we’ve been doing,” Mitchell said, “We need to take that intensity on the road. We struggle on the road, so we need to make sure we keep moving the ball and set our defense. We need to bring that extra intensity and that extra energy. It is tougher to beat a team twice.”

Tipoff is slated for noon and the ACC Network will televise the contest.