By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Joe Harris got his first look at the UVa men’s basketball schedule, he noticed one thing immediately. So did Jontel Evans.
The team that ended the Cavaliers’ 2010-11 season — Miami — would be the first ACC opponent they faced in 2011-12.
“Obviously I was thinking back to the ACC tournament,” Harris, a sophomore swingman, said this week at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We have a pretty sour taste in our mouth from the last time we played against Miami. Both times we played against them last year.”
In the teams’ lone regular-season meeting, UVa blew a seven-point lead late in the second half and ended up losing 70-68 to Miami in overtime at Coral Gables, Fla. However disappointing that loss might have been for the Wahoos, though, it didn’t compare to the agonizing defeat they suffered in the ACC tournament’s first round at Greensboro, N.C.
Virginia led by 10 points with 40 seconds left in the second half, then unraveled in shocking fashion. The Cavaliers turned the ball over four times in the final 20 seconds and were fortunate not to lose in regulation. UVa’s spirit was broken, and the Hurricanes pulled away in overtime for a 69-62 victory that no one associated with third-year coach Tony Bennett’s program will soon forget.
“That game in the ACC tournament just stuck with me,” said Evans, Virginia’s junior point guard. “It was kind of motivation throughout the summer. I feel like we worked hard on those areas that we were concerned about, and I feel like if [the ‘Canes] press again, we’ll be ready for it.”
The Cavaliers have an opportunity Saturday night to avenge their ACC tournament loss. In the conference opener for both teams, 21st-ranked UVa (13-1) hosts Miami (9-4) at 6 o’clock at JPJ.
“We’re really looking forward to this game,” said Harris, Virginia’s second-leading scorer (13 ppg).
Much has changed in both programs since these teams last met. At Miami, Frank Haith is gone, and Jim Larranaga, after a long and successful run at George Mason University, has taken over as head coach. At Virginia, such players as Mustapha Farrakhan, Will Sherrill and KT Harrell have moved on, and Mike Scott is back on the court.
“This is a new year,” Bennett said Thursday. “It’s a new team. They’ve got a new coach. I really, really respect Coach Larranaga, and they’ve got experience. They’ve got the big kid inside, Reggie [Johnson], and then they’ve got those guards” — Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant — “that are very good. And so we know we’ll have to play well, and starting the conference season we want to be as ready as we can on our home court.”
UVa didn’t have Scott on the court in either of its games against Miami in 2010-11. The 6-8, 237-pound forward missed most of last season with an ankle injury.
“It was just hard to watch those games,” Scott recalled this week. “My team was struggling. Even when we were doing well, it was hard to watch, because I wanted to be part of it.
“The only thing you can do is keep leading your team and keep talking to them, being the biggest cheerleader you can, but it’s a very humbling experience.”
Scott, who leads the Cavaliers in scoring and rebounding, chose to return for a fifth year in part because he wanted to experience another season of ACC basketball. He’s helped Virginia put itself on solid footing heading into conference play.
A victory would give the ‘Hoos their first 12-game winning streak since 1981-82, Ralph Sampson’s junior season. Their longest winning streak last season? Five games. UVa finished 16-15 in 2010-11, a year in which Bennett had to blend several freshmen, including Harris, Harrell and Akil Mitchell, with such veterans as Farrakhan, Sherrill, Assane Sene, Sammy Zeglinski and, for 10 games, Scott.
“Not to take anything away from our seniors last year, who were great,” Harris said, “but I think just overall the experience and maturity that we have this year, playing in Coach’s system and understanding the way that he runs things, I feel like we’ve grown up a lot as a team.”
Evans noted another factor in the team’s success.
“We’re just more unified,” he said. “Guys are always hanging out with each other. We’re friends on and off the court, and I think that’s the big difference of our season this year and last year.
“Last year weren’t really hanging out. Some guys were here, some guys were there. But this year everybody’s close and everybody’s together.”
After the Cavaliers returned late last month from a trip to the Pacific Northwest, where they beat Oregon and Seattle, Harrell and redshirt freshman James Johnson left the team, in large part because they wanted more playing time.
“When stuff like that happens, it’s tough, and it’s tough on the team, because you don’t want to see guys leaving,” Harris said. “We take a lot of pride in having loyalty to the program and the coaches, and the guys that are still here want to be here, and we all know that, and so I feel like that has made us closer as a team.”
The attrition has strengthened the bond among the remaining players, Bennett agreed. It also helps, he said, that the team is winning.
“You say, ‘All right, we’re in this together, and we’re going to battle, though our numbers aren’t great, and take this as far as we can and know that we’ve got each other’s back,’ ” Bennett said. “Because we’ve been through a lot together. We’ve been through ups and downs, and that brings you closer. It makes you more unified.”
Larranaga is a former UVa assistant whose coaching mentors include Dick Bennett, Tony’s father. When Larranaga was on Terry Holland’s staff at Virginia, the team’s home was University Hall, which seated about 8,500. John Paul Jones Arena seats nearly 15,000.
The Cavaliers are averaging only 8,916 at home this season, with a high of 10,564 for their Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Michigan in late November. Students are still on holiday break at UVa, but Bennett is hoping for a strong turnout Saturday night.
“It always helps, energy-wise,” he said. “You want to protect your home court, and when the crowd is active and spurring you on, you can feel that, and that energy can be worth a lot. I sensed that in the Michigan game; [the fans] really rallied and got behind us.”
Bennett smiled. “A couple games we didn’t give them a whole lot to cheer about,” he said, “but for the most part they’ve been very supportive, and absolutely the environment and the atmosphere does make a difference.”