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Virginia vies for New York bid

Cavaliers look to extend home streak to 20, defeat Iowa in NIT Quarterfinals

Two and a half weeks ago, Charlottesville bid farewell to its basketball team. After scrambling to erase a 17-point deficit and edge Maryland 61-58 in overtime March 10, Virginia left John Paul Jones Arena and a regular season-closing 17-game home win streak behind for the next weekend’s ACC Tournament — presumably before moving on to the NCAA Tournament.

A dispiriting showing against NC State and an NCAA Selection Committee snub later, however, the Cavaliers found themselves back at the home arena they would have rather left vacant until the fall. Now, after victories against Norfolk State and St. John’s this past week extended the record home-winning streak to 19, Virginia will once and for all take the JPJ court for the last time in the 2012-13 season when it faces Iowa Wednesday night in the NIT quarterfinals.

They might not have wanted to return, but with a trip to Madison Square Garden and the NIT Final Four on the line coach Tony Bennett and his players appreciate the comforts of home more than ever.

“I’ll sound like [athletics director Craig] Littlepage — we’re going to need [the fans] again,” Bennett said. “I didn’t grab a microphone this time, but we play an excellent Iowa team.”

That the Cavaliers (23-11, 11-7 ACC) expressed such enthusiasm for playing a record 22nd home game highlights the reinvigorating effect of their 68-50 thumping of St. John’s. With Virginia entering Sunday reeling from a five-game stretch that sabotaged the team’s NCAA Tournament chances and culminated with a win against Norfolk State . During that game the squad tallied as many fouls — 20 — as made field goals, a 10-of-11 spurt in the first half against the Red Storm galvanized the morning crowd and helped restore the Cavaliers to their pre-March form. Virginia shot more than 50 percent from the field and had four players score in double figures for the first time since the Georgia Tech win Feb. 24.

“It was a lot of fun,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said. “Anytime we get a chance to play at home and in front of our fans and get a win is exciting. They were excited to see us knocking down shots.”

Intriguingly, three of those double-digit scorers were freshmen and the other was not junior guard Joe Harris. While Virginia’s leading scorer’s forgettable 2-of-7 effort prolonged his late-season slide and Mitchell continued to struggle with turnovers, committing five, freshmen forward Mike Tobey and guards Justin Anderson and Taylor Barnette combined for 41 of the team’s 68 points on 14-of-21 shooting. Moreover, along with redshirt freshman guard Teven Jones and freshman forward Evan Nolte, they provided the kind of disruptive presence on defense that suggests a bright future for the Cavaliers beyond 2013.

Still, Bennett scoffed at the idea that he is relying on his freshmen simply to supply them with experience for posterity.

“The guys that are helping us the most and giving us the lifts are playing because we’re really desperately trying to advance,” Bennett said. “[It’s] so important for us.”

Regardless of whether the veteran leaders or young upstarts shoulder the burden, Virginia will need to deliver its best performance in weeks to overcome Iowa (23-12, 9-9 B1G). Despite shooting an ugly 42.2 percent as a team and 30.4 percent from beyond the arc, the Hawkeyes hovered on the fringe of NCAA at-large consideration for much of the season while competing in the ultra-competitive Big Ten thanks to an aggressively physical offense and a defense that forces low-percentage shots.

Led by coach Fran McCaffery, who worked under Littlepage in the early 1980s at Penn, Iowa leads its conference and ranks 10th nationally with 39.3 rebounds per game and holds opponents to 38.8 percent shooting, another conference-best mark.

In addition, the Hawkeyes have compiled an abnormally hefty 24.7 percent of their points from the foul line — a troubling statistic for a Virginia team that has been whistled for 33 fouls in its two acrimonious NIT affairs.

“People want to continue to play,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said. “It gets chippy out there, but we have to do a better job of just playing the game and keeping our heads.”

The Hawkeyes possess the blend of size and athleticism that has troubled Bennett’s squad this season, leading the coach to stress the importance of an engaged home crowd Wednesday.

“[With] the way they’re playing, their motion offense, their ability to defend and the personnel, I’m very impressed with Iowa,” Bennett said. “We’ll need that crowd alive and loud.”

Considering Evans — after being honored at his “last” home game against Maryland — will depart from John Paul Jones Arena for good as a player following Wednesday’s contest, the Virginia faithful should have ample motivation to create a raucous atmosphere.

“It’s going to be bittersweet, just like the Maryland game,” Evans said. “It’s going to be fun. I’ve had a great four years here and I just appreciate this arena and the fans here.”

Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m. and ESPN2 will telecast the game.

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