Nov. 24, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett’s players competed in a series of shooting contests at the end of practice Wednesday afternoon, and jumper after jumper fell for KT Harrell.

For everyone associated with the UVa men’s basketball program, it was a welcome sight. Harrell, a 6-4, 202-pound sophomore, has started every game at shooting guard for Virginia (4-1) this season. But he struggled during the Cavaliers’ recent trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they went 2-1 at the Paradise Jam.

In St. Thomas, Harrell was 0 for 4 on 3-pointers and 2 for 12 from the floor overall. He played solid defense and shot well from the line (7 of 8), but Harrell averaged only 3.7 points and 0.7 rebounds at the Paradise Jam and had three times as many turnovers (6) as assists (2).

“I haven’t been playing with the confidence that I usually play with, but it’ll come. I’m not stressing,” Harrell said Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.

“I wouldn’t say I hit the wall [in St. Thomas]. I would say it’s just a confidence thing. Everybody goes through a little spell where they lose confidence, and I’m going to get it back.”

The key, Harrell said, is to “continue to play and focus on having fun instead of trying to have a good game, because that’s the game is meant for, to have fun and just play.”

Asked about Harrell on a teleconference Wednesday, Virginia coach Tony Bennett said: “He’s just gotta keep coming, and we gotta keep trying to get him the quality looks.”

Harrell wasn’t the only UVa starter off his game at the Paradise Jam. Junior point guard Jontel Evans was 1 for 6 from the floor and 1 for 3 from the line and had 10 turnovers (to only 6 assists) in three games in St. Thomas.

“We’re going to need those guys to step up,” Bennett said Monday at the University of the Virgin Islands when asked about Harrell and Evans.

Bennett has other options at both positions. Fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski, who has been slowed by an ankle injury, can play the point, as can freshman Malcolm Brogdon, one of UVa’s standouts at the Paradise Jam. Each can also play shooting guard.

Harrell opened the season by totaling 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in a rout of South Carolina State, then contributed 8, 2 and 4, respectively, in a win over Winthrop. His production dipped dramatically in St. Thomas, but Harrell still considered it a valuable experience.

“I learned a lot, and I don’t regret anything,” said Harrell, who’s averaging 6.4 points this season. “Of course, you look back and you say, ‘I wish I could have played better,’ but you learn from everything and every game, so I’m glad I got the opportunity to learn.”

After losing to TCU on Friday night, Virginia beat Drexel on Saturday and Drake on Monday. In those three games, UVa’s opponents shot only 35.5 percent from the floor, and Harrell did his part at that end of the court.

“I felt like I played great defense,” Harrell said Wednesday, before correcting himself. “Well, good defense. I wouldn’t call it great, because Coach Bennett and his staff, they have such a high standard for us on the defensive end. But I think I did pretty solid.”

Harrell, who’s from Montgomery, Ala., started 15 of Virginia’s first 21 games in 2010-11. His production dipped in late January, though, and Zeglinski replaced him in the starting lineup for the Wahoos’ final 10 games.

After scoring at least 10 points in 11 of his first 19 games as a Cavalier, Harrell failed to reach double figures in any of the last 12. For the season, he averaged 8.0 points and 2.1 rebounds and shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 42.1 percent from 3-point range and 64.2 percent from the line.

Harrell has made 9 of 10 free throws this season, so he’s been markedly better from the line. But he’s shooting only 31.3 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from beyond the arc.

In 13 scoreless minutes against Drake on Monday, Harrell did not attempt a shot from the floor (or the line). Still, he remains upbeat.

“I can’t go out there and forget who I am,” Harrell said. “I am a scorer, but I’m patient and I wait for my good spots, and I think I just gotta build the confidence back, and it’ll come back.”

Virginia begins a four-game homestand Friday night when Green Bay (2-3) visits John Paul Jones Arena at 7 o’clock.

“I can’t wait,” Harrell said. “We’re going to play really hard, and it’s going to be good for us.”

Green Bay, of course, is Bennett’s alma mater, and his coach there was his father, Dick. During the younger Bennett’s career, the Phoenix went 87-34 and advanced to the NCAA tournament once and to the NIT twice.

“I’ve got great memories of Green Bay, having played high school basketball there and college, and having the success that we had,” Bennett said Wednesday, “and then watching my father carry that on. That’s a great place.”

One of Bennett’s sisters still lives in Green Bay with her husband and their children. The ‘Hoos are scheduled to host the Phoenix at JPJ again next season. The teams will meet in Green Bay in 2013-14 in the final game of this series.

“Which I’m sure will be a festive atmosphere,” Bennett said, laughing.

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