By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After two games at John Paul Jones Arena in front of supportive, if less-than-capacity, crowds, it’s time for Tony Bennett’s young basketball team to venture out into the world.
At 2-0, UVa is where it’s supposed to be after non-conference clashes with William and Mary and, Monday night, USC Upstate. But the Cavaliers won’t play at JPJ again until Dec. 7, when Radford comes to town. If they’re still above .500 when that game arrives, they’ll have cause to celebrate.
The most grueling stretch of the Wahoos’ second season under Bennett — six straight games away from JPJ — begins this week. The ‘Hoos play Thursday night at Stanford. Then come three games in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational, where UVa opens against No. 17 Washington and then will meet No. 12 Kentucky or Oklahoma.
Virginia visits Minnesota for an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game Nov. 29. Then comes the ACC opener, Dec. 5 against No. 22 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
“Certainly the competition steps up, and that’s no disrespect to the two teams we’ve played,” Bennett said after Virginia pulled away for a 74-54 victory over USC Upstate. “You can’t afford to come out sluggish.”
That’s been an issue for the Cavaliers so far. Against W&M, Virginia won 76-52 but led by only one point at the break. Against USC Upstate, a team that was coming off a 66-35 loss to Michigan, the ‘Hoos led 31-28 at halftime.
“We definitely can’t afford to have slow starts, because good teams will take advantage of that,” sophomore point guard Jontel Evans said. “So we have to come out of the gates swinging. We can’t get knocked down in the first round.”
The Spartans, who shot 22.2 percent from the floor at Michigan, hit 10 of 20 field-goal attempts in the first half against UVa, including 4 of 9 from long range.
“I thought that they could get whatever they wanted on us in the first half,” Bennett said. “We were very easy to score against with breakdowns defensively. We were just lackluster offensively. There wasn’t a sense of urgency, and we were certainly out of sync.”
It didn’t help that JPJ was half-filled, and the crowd provided no energy. Still, senior forward Mike Scott said, “that shouldn’t be our excuse. We should always come out aggressive. We were a little bit dead at the beginning, so we allowed them to stay in the game.”
The Spartans (0-2) were still very much in the game at the 14:00 mark of the second half, after back-to-back 3-pointers had pulled them to 42-42. That woke up UVa, which responded with a 13-4 run that included a trey by freshman guard Billy Baron and a three-point play by classmate Joe Harris.
For the second straight game, Baron sparkled off the bench. Against William and Mary, he went 5 for 6 from beyond the arc and scored a game-high 19 points. Baron followed his debut with 14 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals against USC Upstate.
“Billy has been very solid,” Bennett said. “He has a nice feel for the game, and he’s a physical kid. I like what I’ve seen. I hope he’s a gamer. It appears to be that he is. He’s certainly a threat from deep. He has composure. He doesn’t get rushed out there.”
Baron is comfortable at both guard positions, which allows Bennett to pair him with Evans in the backcourt at times.
“It’s great playing with Billy,” Evans said. “He really can light it up, as y’all have seen. He makes it easy on me. I just drive and kick, and he knocks down open 3s.”
Evans, a 5-11 sophomore, is not the shooter that Baron is, but the former Bethel High star contributes in myriad other ways. Against the Spartans, Evans scored a career-high 10 points and added 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal.
“He’s got the heart of a lion,” Bennett said. “I love Jontel’s competitiveness. You can just see that. And he wants to do so well. At times he’s trying to change the game defensively.”
Evans’ defensive prowess has never been in question. At the other end, though, he struggled as a freshman, shooting 36.9 percent from the floor and 16.7 percent from 3-point range.
“That’s what I worked on all summer,” Evans said. “Last year a lot of guys played off of me, because they knew I couldn’t shoot the jump shot. But now this year I worked all summer on it, and I showed tonight that I can hit that jump shot.”
Of Evans’ four field goals Monday night, two were jumpers. Another was a floater in the lane.
“Last year I struggled with my confidence shooting the ball,” he said. “This year I feel a lot more confident shooting the ball. My coaches have faith in me. My teammates have faith in me.”
Evans was aware that he had never scored more than 9 points in a college game before Monday night, and he was pleased to finally hit double figures.
“Felt like I was in high school again,” he said with a smile. “But that’s not my main focus. My main focus is being a leader on this team, being a point guard, taking care of the ball and dishing it to other people for better shots.”
Those shooters include Harris, a 6-6 swingman from Chelan, Wash. Harris missed both of his 3-point attempts against the Tribe, but the first of what figure to be many treys dropped for him with 5:40 left Monday night, and he followed with a floater on UVa’s next possession.
“Obviously I didn’t hit any [3-pointers] in the first game,” Harris said, “and I kind of started off a little slow, so it made me feel better and maybe gave me a little bit more confidence in my shot, just to knock that one and maybe get into a little bit of a rhythm.”
Harris rooms with Baron, and they’ve become all but inseparable since arriving at UVa in June. Baron has been on a positive influence on his game, Harris said.
“When I first got here in the summer, I had never seen anybody get in the gym as much as Bill, and I kind of tagged along with him,” Harris said. “He’s helped me become a better player and love the process and become more dedicated as a player.”
On a night when Scott dominated inside with 19 points and 12 rebounds, UVa got a lift from another big man, Akil Mitchell. The 6-8 freshman from Charlotte, N.C., didn’t play in the first half but finished with 4 rebounds and 3 points.
Mitchell played good defense — “People couldn’t get by him,” said Bennett — and closed the scoring with a breakaway dunk off a steal.
“He really is quick to the rim,” Bennett said. “If he has it on the wing, he can put it on the floor and he’s quick to it. And he gives us some needed athleticism in the forward position. So I was happy for him, and any time we can get experiences for those guys, it’s certainly good for them.”
The fourth freshman to play for the Cavaliers against USC Upstate was the only one who started — K.T. Harrell. The 6-4 guard from Alabama contributed 5 points and 3 assists.
“I look out there sometimes and I say, ‘Boy, we’ve got four freshmen out there,’ ” Bennett said, “but that’s going to happen at times this year. They’re going to grow, and they’re going to learn.”
Their education will continue on the upcoming road trip.
“Will we be perfect?” Bennett said. “I know that’s probably not the case, but if you come out and you’re not alert or they’re just getting easy baskets and owning you on the glass and you’re a little stagnant, it will be very difficult and very challenging. We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves coming up in the next games. This stretch is impressive for anybody. It’s a lot of road games, so it’ll challenge us.”
“I don’t think it’s a news flash,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll go undefeated this year, so we’re going to have to really figure some things out. But this is part of it.”