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Reflective Evans considers career

Jontel Evans comes to peace with disappointing final game

As the final seconds ticked away from Virginia’s NIT quarterfinal game, coach Tony Bennett wrapped Jontel Evans in a hug. The Cavaliers’ 75-64 loss against Iowa marked an unceremonious finish to Virginia’s season and Evans’ four-year Cavalier career.

Evans’ final stat-line showed zero points and four fouls, and the senior point guard could not mask his frustration in his post-game comments.

“I feel a little down,” he said. “I feel like I didn’t have a great performance at all. I feel like I really let my teammates down.”

After the game, fans could take solace in the fact that all of Virginia’s starters except Evans will play next year. Not only will All-ACC standout guard Joe Harris and forward Akil Mitchell return as seniors, but Virginia’s freshmen flashed their promise throughout the Iowa game.

Freshman center Mike Tobey finished with 15 points — embracing his 6-foot-11 frame for easy putbacks while also showcasing a deadly shooting touch. Freshman guard Justin Anderson dominated the Hawkeyes from his thunderous block on Iowa’s opening possession to a final trey during the game’s waning seconds. Anderson finished with five blocks and 24 points, seemingly foreshadowing next season’s success — success Evans will miss.

“[It] is kind of bittersweet,” Evans said. “They have a chance to go far, and I just wish I could be a part of that. But my time is done, I’m an alum now.”

Bennett, however, told Evans after the game, “Walk out of here with your head held high. You left the program in a better place than you found it.”

The first year

Evans found the program in flux. He committed to a Virginia team that had posted a 9-23 ACC record the previous two years. When then-coach Dave Leitao resigned as coach in March 2009, his successor — Bennett — came to Evans’ home in Hampton, Va.

“When he came to my home to recruit me, and talk to me and my parents, he said, ‘Live by faith, not by sight,’” Evans said. “Everyone could see that we weren’t a good program, we weren’t the Kentuckys or the Dukes, but faith is what brought me here.”

Evans gave Bennett his faith even as many of his teammates bolted. During Evans’ freshman campaign, the team faltered down the stretch to a 15-16 record and afterward suffered an exodus of talented players. ACC Freshman of the Year Sylven Landesberg struggled with academic eligibility and left to play professionally. Junior Jeff Jones and freshman Tristan Spurlock transferred after the season.

The following year, Bennett recruited six freshmen but has since lost four of them. Billy Baron, Will Regan, James Johnson and KT Harrell all transferred before finishing their second year. Two weeks ago, sophomore guard Paul Jesperson announced his own intention to transfer. Jesperson, Johnson and Harrell were all unavailable for comment, but Mitchell — one of the two remaining members of Bennett’s first recruiting class — acknowledges not everyone can handle Bennett’s hard-nosed, defensive system.

“You have to be very mentally tough,” Mitchell said. “Some guys can’t keep up with it. It really demands the best out of you, and I think that’s why you see a lot of people growing in this system, like Mike [Scott] and Jerome [Meyinsse]. But … some guys just can’t handle it.”

Evans is now the only Cavalier to play for all of Bennett’s first four seasons, and both he and the team have grown under the coach.

The junior year

Evans could have been a mismatch for Bennett’s system. Bennett’s pack-line defense is designed to compensate for a disadvantage in athleticism; Evans was a two-sport star as a high school point guard and tailback. Bennett’s system forces a slow-down tempo; Evans is often at his best on a fast break, slashing to the basket.

Yet Evans has evolved into a poster-child for Bennett’s defense-first mentality. Last season’s run to the NCAA Tournament is rightly remembered for Mike Scott’s emergence as one of college basketball’s best forwards, but Evans had his own breakout season and blossomed into one of the ACC’s best on-ball defenders.

Evans earned All-ACC Defensive honors last season, and his raw defensive statistics become even more impressive when using metrics that account for Virginia’s slow place. Evans’ 3.3 steal percentage, which measures a player’s steals per possession, ranked second in the ACC. His 2.3 defensive win shares — a statistic that estimates how many wins a player’s defense added based on points allowed per possession — ranked sixth in the conference. He also averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 assists a game, becoming an important role player on Virginia’s tournament team.

The final year

Evans began his last season on the bench with a foot injury and missed five of Virginia’s first six games after receiving offseason surgery. Even after returning, Evans never fully felt comfortable with his foot — his shooting percentage dropped 10 points and his free throw percentage plummeted to 37.5 percent.

“It was very frustrating because before the injury, I felt like I was at the peak and playing some really good basketball, but it really set me back a lot,” Evans said. “I think I re-aggravated it twice, and it just kept nagging me throughout the whole season.”

Evans knows that many fans will focus on his more frustrating moments when evaluating him, including the final seconds of the Boston College game where Evans fumbled Virginia’s final possession out of bounds to cement the one-point loss.

“For the loyal fans that truly know basketball, they know what I bring,” Evans said. “For those that just watch it, they always have something negative to say.”

Evans’ teammates emphasize how his absence affected them in early losses to George Mason and Delaware, where the Cavaliers were forced to either play freshman Teven Jones or use Harris out of position. More importantly, they stress Evans’ value off the court.

“It’s the little things like him being a leader in the locker room that make our program better,” Mitchell said. “I think those are the little things that people don’t get to see.”

Evans said he hopes to continue playing basketball overseas next year, but ultimately his enduring memory from his final college basketball game will have nothing to do with the loss or his performance. Instead, he remembers each of his teammates telling him how much his four years at Virginia meant to them.

“It was a sad moment,” Evans said. “But what really got to me was when each and every one of my teammates came up to me and said … ‘We really appreciate your leadership’ and just all those things that a lot of people don’t see. As a senior I sometimes felt it went unnoticed, but it didn’t.”


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