By Jeff White
CLEMSON, S.C. — His left hand wrapped almost like a boxer’s, UVa sophomore Joe Harris joined his teammates on the court at Littlejohn Coliseum on Monday night. Two days earlier, in Chapel Hill, N.C., Harris had fractured a bone in his non-shooting hand, and now he wanted to test it at practice.
Virginia’s head athletic trainer, Ethan Saliba, watched closely as Harris caught passes and put up shots. Whether the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer plays Tuesday night against ACC rival Clemson (4-6, 12-12) is expected to be a game-time decision.
If Harris plays, it will be with a plastic shell and foam padding covering most of his left hand. He’s able to move his wrist and fingers with his hand protected that way, and “as the swelling goes down, hopefully his dexterity improves,” Saliba said.
No. 22 Virginia (6-4, 19-5) already is missing its starting center, 7-0 senior Assane Sene, who hasn’t played since injuring his right ankle Jan. 19 in Atlanta. If Harris (12.5 ppg) is not available, third-year coach Tony Bennett will have seven healthy scholarship players for the Wahoos’ second clash with the Tigers in two weeks.
The teams met Jan. 31 at John Paul Jones Arena, where Harris went 5 for 6 from 3-point range in UVa’s 65-61 victory. All-America candidate Mike Scott led the ‘Hoos with 23 points and 10 rebounds in that game.
“Our plate is full, we know that,” Bennett said after practice Monday night, “and if Joe can’t play or he’s limited, we’ve got to find ways to hang in there and be effective.”
If Harris is out, Bennett’s options will consist of fifth-year seniors Scott and Sammy Zeglinski, junior Jontel Evans, sophomore Akil Mitchell and freshmen Malcolm Brogdon, Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson. Scott, Mitchell and Atkins — each listed at 6-8 — are Virginia’s tallest players.
Short-handed or not, Bennett knows, his team can ill afford to feel sorry for itself.
“In these situations, your mindset and your attitude is critical,” he said, “and then win, lose or draw you regroup and you learn from it and you get ready for the next one. That’s going to be real important. I just know these guys are really hungry to keep improving and keep trying to be successful. I know that’s important, and when you kind of hit a bump in the road, as we’ve hit a few this year, we’ve maybe wobbled a little bit, but we seem to have regrouped.”
Virginia is coming off its most one-sided defeat of the season — a 70-52 loss to then-No. 5 North Carolina — but Evans is confident the team will regroup again, regardless of Harris’ availability.
“We’ve got to,” Evans said Monday night. “That’s my job. I’m the point guard, a leader of this team. I just gotta get guys on the right page, tell them to keep their heads up and not get down on themselves.”
Six regular-season games remain for UVa, which is tied with Miami for fifth place in the ACC. On the ACC coaches’ teleconference Monday, Bennett was asked if fatigue had contributed to Virginia’s poor showing in Chapel Hill. The taller Tar Heels outrebounded the ‘Hoos 52-32 and had 23 second-chance points.
“Did we get tired in that game?” Bennett said. “It looked like as the game wore on, we did get a little tired, but I think when you’re playing that hard, when you’re going against ACC competition, and certainly Carolina, the way they were running the floor and going to the glass, that’s going to be part of it.”
Bennett acknowledged, though, that the Cavaliers “don’t have a ton of depth. I’m sure a lot of [teams] are in this boat. So you just try to make the most of it, and hopefully you get some guys that step up that maybe you weren’t planning on or just play a little bigger role that can buy some time for some guys as they’re resting or not playing quite as many minutes.
“But rotations usually are shrinking at this time of the year for most teams. Ours can’t shrink much more, because we got it about as small as it can, but we’re always mindful of that, watching [the players’] fatigue factor and knowing that’s just part of the game.”
Jesperson, who went into the season expecting to redshirt, was pressed into service in late December after the departure of sophomore guard KT Harrell, who left the program two days before Christmas. Jesperson, a 6-6 swingman from Merrill, Wis., is averaging only 7.3 minutes, but his role is likely to grow with Harris banged up.
Harris, a 6-6 swingman from Chelan, Wash., was injured in the first half of the UNC game. He played through the pain and hit two second-half 3-pointers for Virginia, which trailed by only two with 12:45 left.
The Tigers’ Saturday went much better than the Cavaliers’ did. In Winston-Salem, N.C., Clemson whipped Wake Forest 78-58. The Tigers’ standouts included 6-9, 225-pound junior Milton Jennings. He contributed 15 points and 5 rebounds to help Clemson win at Wake for the first time since 1990.
“He’s a talented, long, athletic player,” Bennett said. “They’re a different team with him, so we’ll have to certainly account for him.”
Jennings recently returned from a two-game suspension related to academics. One of the games he missed was Clemson’s loss in Charlottesville. In his first game back, Jennings had 14 points and 6 boards against Maryland.
“He’s a little longer than the other guys we have in terms of size,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Monday. “He maybe can help defend the interior a little bit better, rebound a little bit better. If he can make his perimeter shot, that really helps our offense out in terms of giving us another shooter on the floor. When he’s in a good place, Milt can be a good player for us.”
For the ‘Hoos, a victory Tuesday night would give them six road wins in a season for the first time since 1994-95. Virginia hosts Maryland at JPJ at 1 p.m. Saturday.