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Virginia dominates St. Johns, advances with 68-50 win

Cavalier freshmen set the tone as team cruises to blowout victory

Largely forgotten in the roller coaster ride of emotion that accompanied the close of the Virginia basketball team’s 2012-13 season, the Cavaliers’ historic success at home never faltered. Since losing to Delaware on Nov. 13, Virginia home games have played out like a poorly scripted television show, with far too few plot twists and the ultimate outcome apparent to all of its spectators. Sunday morning, the team invigorated a sleepy home crowd with a routine, but nonetheless impressive performance.

Led by another assertive effort by budding star freshman guard Justin Anderson, the Cavaliers (23-11, 11-7 ACC) coasted past St. Johns (17-16, 8-10 Big East) 68-50 for their 19th straight home victory, the fourth longest active streak in Division I men’s basketball. Five different freshmen played double-digit minutes for coach Tony Bennett, including guard Taylor Barnette, whose three 3-pointers sparked a victory that sent Virginia into the third round of the NIT where they will meet Iowa Wednesday.

“They’re an NCAA Tournament caliber team who happens to be playing in the NIT,” St. Johns coach Steve Lavin said. “I think that’s what we saw, an NCAA caliber team playing on their home floor. Tip my cap to coach Bennett and his team for sticking with it and playing a cohesive game of basketball.”

Virginia was much sharper than they had been in its 67-56 first round victory against Norfolk State, taking complete control of the Red Storm after falling behind 8-4 in the opening minutes. Anderson, who finished with a career-high 18 points, was the lone Cavalier to score in the game’s first eight minutes, but a quartet of freshmen came off the bench to spark a run that changed the complexion of the game.

Redshirt freshman guard Teven Jones continued his hot-shooting from deep by knocking down a 3-pointer from the left wing to bring Virginia within one at 7-8. Forward Evan Nolte then came up with the steal on the other end and forward Mike Tobey capitalized by scoring two on a hook shot inside to put Virginia ahead near the 10-minute mark of the first half. That was the beginning of a 20-3 game-changing spurt that left St. Johns searching for answers.

Tobey added another layup and junior guard Joe Harris added three straight points, but the biggest difference came from a freshman with much more limited playing time on the season. Barnette first flashed his playmaking skills by driving and dishing inside to a cutting Evans for a layup. Not to be outdone, Evans returned the favor on the very next Cavalier possession, racing ahead on a fast break and one-arming a bounce pass to Barnette for another layup to extend the lead to 18-11.

“I thought the first-years really gave us a lift today and played very good basketball,” Bennett said. “That was pivotal in this game.”

Out of a timeout, Barnette drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing to push the advantage to double-digits. With the arena getting ready to erupt, Barnette drilled yet another trey from nearly the same spot to cap off the dominant stretch and extend the Cavaliers’ lead to 24-11 with 5:49 remaining in the first half. He finished with a career-high 13 points including hitting 3-of-5 from long range. Virginia freshmen accounted for 24 of the team’s 32 first-half points.

“All of us know kind of what to expect just watching [Barnette] in practice,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said. “He’s a firecracker man, if he gets any daylight, any room, any rhythm it’s going in. You guys all kind of got a glimpse of that today.”

St. Johns’ sophomore guard Amir Garrett quieted the crowd after Barnette’s triple by knocking down a 3-pointer of his own at the other end and following that up with a tip-in to bring the Red Storm back within eight, 24-16, with under five minutes to play in the half. Freshman forward Jakarr Sampson added a step-back jumper for two for a speedy 7-0 run, but from there, Anderson answered the call.

The athletic freshman muscled his way inside for a lefty layup to stop the St. Johns run. He then knocked down 3-of-4 free throws in the next three minutes, and Mitchell pump-faked and pivoted inside for a reverse to allow Virginia to go to the break leading 32-21. The Red Storm would get no closer than seven to the Cavaliers in the second half.

“He’s unafraid,” Bennett said of Anderson. “He makes plays in different ways whether it’s hitting a shot, getting an offensive rebound, passing. That versatility and those things as he’s continuing to evolve are very good. He’s kind of an x-factor guy for us.”

With its season on the line, St. John’s tried desperately to crawl back into contention in the second half, but each mini rally was answered in short order by Virginia. The Red Storm pulled within seven with 12:46 remaining after scoring four straight points, but it was once again Anderson who answered. His 3-pointer off the assist by Tobey put the Cavaliers back up 43-33 and sparked a game-sealing 14-4 run, capped off by Anderson returning the favor with an assist to Tobey.

Sunday’s victory demonstrated the team’s immense potential with a cast of budding freshmen, but with a chance to advance to the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden with a win against Iowa Wednesday, Virginia’s focus is firmly on what they can do this season.

“I hate thinking about the future,” Anderson said when asked about the potential of the freshmen class. “I like thinking about the next game and thinking about Iowa that we have coming in. It always feels good to look to your left and to your right and say, ‘I feel comfortable with these guys. I can’t wait to go to battle every single night with them.’”


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