GREENSBORO, NC — Joe Harris said going into the postseason that he wanted to be more aggressive on offense. If Friday’s debut game in the ACC Tournament was any indication, the senior guard meant it. Scoring early and often, Harris led Virginia with 20 points and help guide the Cavaliers to their first ACC Tournament semifinal in nearly 20 years, beating Florida State 64-51.
“One of [Harris’] strengths is that he knows when to step up,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We talked about this yesterday, actually, Joe and I. He knows when to let it come. I thought he really did a great job early when we needed some things, showed a variety of thinks he can do.”
Harris scored six of the team’s first 10 points, including a 3-pointer seven-and-a-half minutes into the game that gave Virginia (26-6, 16-2 ACC) its first lead at 10-9. The senior would finish the first half with 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting and help Virginia to a 32-27 halftime lead.
“Joe came in aggressive,” redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “He started off the game, I think, with an and-one, and he knocked down the free throw. That’s always a good sign. When his free throws are dropping and he’s aggressive from the very beginning, it’s going to be a good night for us.”
Harris finished the game with 20 points, his highest output of the season since scoring 20 points against Hampton in November. The senior has not always been asked this year to be the team’s primary scorer, but he showed he can have outbursts when needed — something that give his teammates encouragement.
“It feels awesome,” sophomore Justin Anderson said. “That’s one thing about this team. Another one of our pillar is humility, unselfishness. … No one person has to feel like they carry the weight of the team, and he’s one guy that embodies that. When you have a senior that embodies that, it makes everyone play that much harder.
The game was close in the first half — the teams traded leads three times — and Florida State battered Virginia down low early, holding a 9-3 rebounding advantage at one point. Virginia would turn it around, finishing the game with a 31-25 advantage on the boards.
“At halftime that was our thing,” Bennett said. “I thought we were even better at the end of the first half. I thought we were keeping them off of the glass. But our careless turnovers or turnovers that led to opportunities for them and then their offensive rebounding were the two areas that we had to get under control if we were going to be successful.”
Florida State (19-13, 9-9 ACC) shot a respectable 47.6 percent from the field in the first half, but the Seminoles turned the ball over nine times in the half. Virginia was unable to capitalize effectively on the errors, though, scoring just five points off turnovers in the half as the game remained close.
The Cavaliers were characteristically strong after halftime, and their five-point lead at the break would be the closest Florida State would get. Virginia opened up a 15-point lead midway through the second half and was able to cruise to the victory. The team shot worse in the second half at 40.9 percent, but they were aided by the Seminoles’ 38.4 percent from the field after halftime.
Virginia’s bench had 26 points — Florida State had just nine bench points — including 16 from redshirt sophomore forward Anthony Gill. Gill was active on the boards, picking up four offensive rebounds and a couple of put-back dunks.
“We needed that,” Bennett said. “I thought Anthony was all over the offensive glass. They got such shot blockers when we got into the paint and a shot went up. Anthony has good timing and a good nose for that.”
Bennett was animated all game, excitedly congratulating the players after defensive stops and arguing foul calls with the referees. He is usually relatively even-keeled during games, but his players say the passion is always there, even if less visible normally.
“Coach Bennett gets hyped, and I love it,” Anderson said. “That’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to be here and be part of this program. He’s a big time basketball player himself. He still has game. He knows what it’s like, the energy and the passion. He’s so passionate about this game, so when we do great things on defense, he gets hyped and he gets into it. He’s really poised in games, but today he showed it.”
With the win, Virginia advances to its first ACC semifinal since 1995 and picks up its first ACC tournament win since 2010. None of the current Virginia players were around for the team’s last ACC win, so the feeling is even better.
“It’s a big accomplishment for us,” Brogdon said. “I feel like we’ve had a lot of accomplishments this season, but this is by far one of the most important ones. It’s humbling to be able to play at this level and play against this competitions and we’ve got to embrace it and keep moving forward. I was talking to Thomas [Rogers] about [winning an ACC tournament game], our senior, and he said it was the first time. He was really excited, because it hasn’t been done here.”