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Simba's Pride

Freshman guard Justin Anderson's performance provides rare Sunday morning treat

Other than those who attend particularly enthralling church services, enjoy “Meet the Press” or simply choose to ignore their homework, college students tend to find that Sunday mornings represent the antithesis of fun. In a University culture that emphasizes the balance between academic achievement and social interaction — and especially “lubricated” social interaction — waking up Sunday morning doubly hammers us with a reminder of our cascading workload and the realization that that late-night White Spot excursion was more ill-advised than CBS’s decision to hire Doug Gottlieb. If the college experience marks “The Dark Knight”-like apex of our lives, Sunday mornings definitely equate to all the scenes with Maggie Gyllenhaal.

As far as Sunday mornings go, then, Virginia’s pulsating 68-50 victory against St. John’s in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 8,457 at John Paul Jones Arena highlighted an unusually entertaining one. The specific manner in which the Cavaliers advanced to the NIT quarterfinals, in fact, pegs this game as one of Virginia’s most authentically fun performances of the season. Simply put, this game belonged to freshman forward Justin Anderson. And Anderson, though far from the perfect player, harbors a passion for basketball which epitomizes everything sports could and should be.

I try to restrain myself from participating in the psychoanalysis that mires a lot of sports discourse these days. That’s why I’ll reference Joe Harris’ 23-of-71 shooting slump since his breakout Duke performance rather than offering appealing, but ultimately speculative, conjectures about whether the Cavaliers’ star guard is fatigued or mentally rattled.

But in light of what we now know, we can safely say that coach Tony Bennett’s young, overachieving roster felt the strain of external expectations during its wobbly 1-3 stretch to finish the regular season. Whether the missed shots and constant hiccups that started accumulating in the Boston College mishap caused the Cavaliers’ to tighten up or vice versa, a team that thrived on emotion for the lion’s share of the season seemed more business-like away from home as the stakes escalated. The effort never wavered, but an enjoyable game seemed to morph into a tedious mission for Virginia these past few weeks.

Thanks in large part to Anderson’s efforts Sunday, though, smiles replaced the determined scowls Virginia had previously donned in March. Harris still failed to remove the lid on his rim and junior forward Akil Mitchell continued his recent inexplicable affinity for throwing the ball to spectators. But, Anderson sliced the St. John’s zone defense with bulldozing drives and precise passing, stuffed three shots on defense and constantly jolted the Sunday morning crowd into alertness en route to an 18-point, 4 assist virtuoso performance.

What’s more, fellow freshmen Mike Tobey, Teven Jones and Taylor Barnette thrived on the same enthusiasm, with Barnette in particular combining his pinpoint 3-point shooting with his most inspired defense and passing since arriving in Charlottesville. In short, a team feared for its suffocating defenses and dependent on its savvy veteran stars played its best game in weeks by taking its cue from a bunch of freshmen — especially the irrepressibly boisterous one they call “Simba.”

That the Cavaliers chose this juncture of the season to put forth one of their most spirited, enjoyable efforts is particularly fascinating in that it contradicts what much of our society values in the sports world. On a meta-scale, an NIT second round game at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning matters less than what color suit Craig Sager is wearing from day to day. With nothing tangible at stake except a potential NIT championship in a game between an offensively challenged Virginia team and a St. John’s squad that has only been intermittently competent since the days when Aaron Carter claimed to be able to dunk on Shaq, many fans would ridicule the very notion of tuning in.

Still, such shortsighted snobbery exposes fans to a dangerous pitfall. By restricting ourselves to the games we think matter, we lose sight of what actually matters. We squander the blessing of games such as Sunday’s, when the action itself — with all its exciting moments and intrinsic drama — drowns out all the white noise, the prognostications and implications to which we assign too much importance.

Instances such as Virginia’s scintillating 5-0 run to blow the game open in the second half following Chris Obekpa’s inadvertent, truck-sticking of Anderson or Barnette’s sheepish attempt at a dunk in the game’s final minute arose simply from the Cavaliers’ desire to win a game they deeply cared about, not the desire for recognition or significance.

For two weeks, Virginia had looked like a team suffering through the games to reach some unseen pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Anderson and the Cavaliers, with their tongue-wagging, fist-pumping, rim-rocking — or almost rim-rocking, in Barnette’s case — exhibition Sunday, exuded the recognition that the opportunity to play the game itself represents the more valuable pot of gold, anyway.

Passion alone does not a winner make; if that were the case, Virginia would be rolling to the Sweet 16 and Simba would already be the Lion King. I recognize that 54.5 percent shooting, Bennett’s early adjustments against the St. John’s zone and a Red Storm offensive game plan that was less coherent than the Swedish Chef from the Muppets played monumental roles in Virginia’s ultimate triumph. Still, as a player under intense pressure to become the eventual star of a surging program, Anderson showed Sunday that we’re fools if we let petty roadblocks such as homework, hangovers or outside expectations distract us from how lucky we are to be doing what we love. In the end, quite fittingly, he put it more aptly than I could ever hope to.

“Being a freshman, you are just happy to play basketball,” Anderson said. “We have an opportunity to keep playing basketball, so why not take it?”

That sentiment alone cannot win Virginia games. But it sure as heck made for a fun Sunday morning.


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