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Cavs escape against Norfolk State, 67-56

U.Va. survives late scare to advance to NIT Tournament's second round

If the motto for March is “Survive and Advance,” the Virginia basketball team should have left John Paul Jones Tuesday night pleased with the result. But after beating overmatched Norfolk State in the first round of the NIT Tournament 67-56 in an all-around eyesore, the Cavaliers could hardly mask their disappointment.

Just days after learning that their season would not culminate in an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Cavaliers lack of passion was apparent. For a team that has thrived off the energy of its home crowd to become one of the most dominant squads at home in the country, Virginia mirrored the demeanor of a largely subdued fan base.

“I don’t know, I guess it’s a mental hangover from not making the tournament – that really upset the guys,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said. “It’s a weird tournament for me. You kind of got to get yourself ramped up to play in the NIT because everybody dreams of making the tournament and when you don’t make it, that disappointment kind of sits in your chest a little bit.”

Meanwhile, the upset-hungry Norfolk State squad — which also faltered in its conference tournament to squander a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year — built off the excitement of a small but vocal green-clad section to stay close against the top-seeded Cavaliers.

Norfolk State gave Virginia a late scare, but the Cavaliers came through with just enough poise late to come away with the victory. Senior forward Rob Johnson, who led the Spartans with 16 points and 13 rebounds, converted an and-one with 3:26 remaining to bring his team within 51-47. Standout freshman guard Justin Anderson answered the call late by draining a pair of free throws and knocking down a pull-up jumper from just inside the 3-point line to put Virginia back up by eight.

Anderson scored a team-high 15 points to help Virginia avoid another impressive upset by Norfolk State. The Spartans became the fifth 15-seed to win a first round game in the NCAA Tournament when they shocked Missouri in the first round of last year’s “Big Dance.” Norfolk State was able to keep within striking distance throughout, largely because of one of the poorest performances of the season by the Cavaliers usually potent trio of Mitchell, junior guard Joe Harris and senior guard Jontel Evans.

“Joe and Akil … they were out of sorts as far as the turnovers,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We just needed someone to make some plays and get us some easy buckets, and Justin did that.”

Mitchell and Evans combined for seven turnovers and four points in the opening period and Harris was missing in action, scoring just five points on three shot attempts. The Cavaliers mustered just 26 first-half points and had 10 turnovers compared to just four assists in the period.

“We were just making some very unsound plays,” freshman forward Evan Nolte said. “We needed to have more ‘ball sureness,’ as we call it. We were just making some bad plays, and we need to just focus more on keeping control of the ball and not making stupid passes.”

Meanwhile, the Spartans floundered as well in the first 20 minutes, missing 20 of their final 22 shots from the field in the period after opening an 8-0 lead to start the game. Johnson got hot out of the gate, drilling three 3-pointers in the first nine minutes, but Norfolk State did little else well at its end, shooting a horrific 19 percent from the field in the period.

With Evans reeling, freshman guard Teven Jones gave Virginia a spark by knocking down a pair of 3-pointers off the bench. His trey with 9:57 remaining gave Virginia its first lead of the game, 12-11. The Cavaliers were able to grab control by closing the first half on an 8-0 run on three points by freshman forward Mike Tobey, a Harris 3-pointer and an Anderson jumper to take a 10 point lead into the break.

The Cavalier lead remained fairly steady until a Spartan 7-0 spurt brought them within three with 10 minutes to play in the second half. From there, Norfolk State made just one field goal over the next seven and a half minutes, but Virginia was unable to firmly pull away because of poor execution. Fifteen missed free throws and 17 total turnovers marred the team’s first postseason victory outside the ACC tournament since 2008.

“We got just enough stops, obviously, to be successful,” Bennett said. “But we had trouble handling the ball, making free throws, keeping them off the glass. Those plays kind of cost us.”

Evans provided a rare jolt of energy for the home crowd when mid-air he absorbed a hard blow from redshirt junior guard Malcolm Hawkins. Evans converted the layup and lay on the ground while a trainer came out to check on him, and he was forced to exit the game. Mitchell was selected to take the free throw by Spartan coach Anthony Evans, and he answered by knocking the foul shot down to extend the lead to 47-40 with 6:54 to play.

Mitchell, who entered the game averaging 17.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in his last six contests, was one of the prime culprits for the team’s struggles. He went 5-for-11 from the line and had five turnovers despite finishing with a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Despite the uneven showing, he helped seal the game with a pair of monstrous one-handed dunks in the final 2:09.

“Just trying to make myself feel a little better about having such a bad game,” Mitchell said. “They were taunting me, they had fans, so I just kind of wanted to send a message.”

The Cavaliers will host St. John’s in the second round of the NIT Tournament. The date and time of that game has not yet been announced.

“To advance, to win in a tournament setting, I think is important,” Bennett said. “And now you regroup and play a Big East team that’s very talented.”

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