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Virginia hosts second-round opponent St. Johns

Freshmen look to lead Cavs past Red Storm at JPJ

Perhaps the most devastating stretch of the 2012-13 Virginia basketball season occurred long before a 1-3 finish definitively ended the team’s hopes of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. In early November, with senior point guard Jontel Evans injured and juniors guard Joe Harris and forward Akil Mitchell still emerging from the shadow of departed forward Mike Scott, the Cavaliers fell to a pair of Colonial Athletic Association teams.

The second CAA loss came at the hands of Delaware Nov. 13 in the NIT Season Tip-off in Charlottesville, a defeat that cost the Cavaliers a chance to play on a national stage in the finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Four months later, Virginia finds itself two wins away from making amends for that disappointment by advancing to New York in the postseason NIT Tournament. They will look to move one win closer when they host St. John’s Sunday.

“Hopefully we can be better than we were in the preseason NIT,” coach Tony Bennett said before the tournament began. “We’ll need to be.”

Bennett’s roster has undergone two types of transformations since those devastating losses. After starting three freshmen in the 63-59 loss to Delaware earlier in the season, the Evans’ return has given Bennett a veteran presence to direct the offense. Perhaps more importantly, the overwhelmed and underprepared freshmen that failed to direct the team past Delaware and onto New York are now full-fledged cogs in Bennett’s rotation.

The freshman that best embodies that development is guard Justin Anderson, who came through in a crucial stretch last Tuesday against Norfolk State to keep Virginia’s season alive. Anderson scored six straight points after the Spartans had pulled within four with 3:25 remaining, including a picturesque pull-up jumper that he followed by unleashing a scream of emotion and flexing his muscles.

“I think Justin, he played extremely well today,” freshman forward Evan Nolte said after the game. “He picked it up a ton with the scoring. That’s good, especially when Joe and Akil are struggling.”

Anderson scored just two points and committed four turnovers in 30 minutes in the loss to Delaware, but he has emerged as a do-it-all burst of energy for Bennett and an indispensable member of the starting lineup. His passionate play has regularly energized the home crowd in Charlottesville and brought out the best in his teammates. Virginia has won 18 straight home games to improve to 19-1 at home and has set the all-time program record for home victories in a season.

Anderson’s dramatic improvement throughout the season is reflective of the entire Virginia freshmen class. Freshman forward Mike Tobey and Nolte are fourth and fifth on the team in scoring respectively, and have settled into a supporting role off the bench. Freshman guard Teven Jones has also carved out a role, serving as Evans’ primary backup at point guard. Jones scored seven points Tuesday and combined with Tobey and Nolte to account for all 19 of Virginia’s bench points. Even little-used reserve guard Taylor Barnette has been a sparkplug by developing into a reliable marksman from deep, making 42 percent of his 3-point attempts.

“It’s very encouraging to know that teammates have our back when we’re not at our best,” Mitchell said.

Playing in a one-and-done postseason tournament presents a prime opportunity for Virginia’s freshmen to gain experience in high-pressure situations. The Cavaliers have not fared well in that setting this season, not only losing to Delaware but also getting walloped in their first ACC Tournament game against NC State, 75-57.

“We didn’t fare well and now we have another chance to be in a one-and-done setting and try to fare better,” Bennett said. “I think any time you can put your young players or your returners in those situations that they play in that tournament setting, that is very positive for next year.”

Virginia need only look toward the opposite bench Sunday to see the tangible benefits of having game-ready sophomores. Just minutes before Virginia took the court against Norfolk State Tuesday, St. John’s came through with an incredible game-winning buzzer-beater. Sophomore guard Sir’Dominic Pointer, who started 25 games as a freshman for the Red Storm last season, took the ball the length of the court in 5.7 seconds and finished with a fadeaway from the left baseline as time expired to give St. John’s a dramatic 63-61 win.

Fellow sophomore guard D’Angelo Harrison leads St. John’s by averaging 17.8 points per game and freshman forward JaKarr Sampson also averages double-digits at 14.9 points per game. The Red Storm lost their final four regular season games in the challenging Big East, but will present a challenge to Virginia with their athleticism and defensive pressure.

Tipoff from John Paul Jones is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday morning.

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