By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Joe Harris couldn’t hide if he wanted to around Grounds. He stands 6-6, he’s regularly seen on TV, and he has a cast on his left hand. All week long, his fellow students have peppered the UVa basketball team’s second-leading scorer with questions about his health.
“Even a couple of my professors,” Harris said with a laugh Friday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “They’ve asked me how my hand is doing and if I can still shoot and stuff.”
His non-shooting hand, in which he fractured a bone last Saturday at North Carolina, still hurts, and much of the hand is protected by a plastic shell and foam padding whenever Harris takes the court. But the sophomore swingman from Chelan, Wash., put up a lot of shots in practice Thursday and Friday, and he expects to be more effective Saturday against Maryland than he was Tuesday night at Clemson, his first game after suffering the injury.
No. 22 UVa (6-5, 19-6) hosts ACC rival Maryland (5-6, 15-10) at 1 p.m. at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” said Harris, who scored 2 points in 21 minutes — both season lows — against Clemson.
“I feel like a lot of it is just accepting it mentally. Obviously it’s going to hurt, but my hand is still healing, and I can’t just think about it maybe getting worse while playing, because 95 percent it won’t. It should heal. The doctors and everybody are pretty positive about that, so I just have to overcome the mental side of it, and the pain.”
When Harris catches the ball a certain way, a jolt of pain shoots through his hand, and he’s not comfortable taking more than one or two dribbles at a time. But with the Cavaliers positioned to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years, he’s willing to deal with some discomfort.
“It’s just one of those deals where he’s making the most of it, and he’s going to do whatever he can to help us,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I would think in another week, it will start feeling better. I don’t think it feels a whole lot better yet. But I think he needs to get to that point where at least he can get a little relief.”
This is the Wahoos’ first game at JPJ since Feb. 8, when they whipped Wake Forest 68-44. That was their fourth victory in five games. Since then, however, Virginia has dropped two in a row, losing 70-52 at North Carolina and 60-48 at Clemson. UVa’s first four losses had been by a combined 10 points.
“We’re a little off track right now,” said guard Sammy Zeglinski, a fifth-year senior. “We’re excited to get back home and just get back to our principles.”
Missed shots and turnovers hurt the ‘Hoos in both losses. Equally distressing to Bennett were his team’s defensive breakdowns. And so his players heard repeatedly from him Thursday and Friday that they need to “impose their will” when opponents have the ball.
“That’s something we got away from,” Zeglinski said, “being away to impose our will on the defensive end. People haven’t really felt our pressure, so we’re going to ratchet it up [Saturday].”
With two good hands, Harris (12 ppg) is one of the ACC’s most dangerous 3-point shooters, and he has expanded his offensive repertoire this season, scoring regularly on drives and floaters, too.
With Harris at less than full strength, the Cavaliers “have to be a little different,” Bennett said. “Somehow we gotta make up for this setback, and I think it has to be by being tougher and sharper on defense.”
The ‘Hoos played hard for long stretches in the recent losses, Bennett said, but there were times in both games when his team wasn’t as tough-minded as it had been.
“Sometimes it’s because you’re playing on the road in tough settings and [opponents] are continuing to get better, but we’ve gotta dig deep on this one,” Bennett said. “We don’t have what we had, so we’re a little different.”
The Terrapins aren’t the team they were two weeks ago, either. Their starting point guard, sophomore Pe’Shon Howard, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Feb. 9 and won’t play again this season.
Maryland still has Terrell Stoglin, though. That worries UVa, and understandably so. Stoglin, a 6-1 left-hander, leads the ACC in scoring at 21.7 ppg and has “unlimited range,” Bennett said.
Stoglin doesn’t always make the best decisions — he has more turnovers (58) than assists (50) this season — but the sophomore from Tucson, Ariz., has a dazzling array of moves.
“He’s got the whole package from an offensive scoring standpoint,” said Bennett, a former NBA player who, for obvious reasons, has a special appreciation for sweet-shooting left-handed guards.
“He puts it on the floor, shoots with deep range, gets to the rim, has a mid-range game, and he’s good with his fakes.”
The 6-1 Zeglinski might start the game on Stoglin, but 5-11 junior Jontel Evans and 6-5 freshman Malcolm Brogdon figure to also draw that assignment at times Saturday afternoon.
The key against Stoglin, Zeglinski said, is to “try to make him take tough shots. He’ll make his share of shots, so just force him into contested shots and don’t get discouraged when he hits a couple tough shots. Just make him work for everything.
“He’s crafty, and we’ll definitely have our hands full, but it’s going to be five guys versus the ball. It’s not just one-on-one.”
Stoglin has attempted 405 shots this season. No other Terp has more than 193 attempts.
“He shoots a lot of shots,” Bennett said. “He makes a lot of tough shots. You can’t get discouraged if he’s hitting tough ones. But with all really good scorers, you try not to give them the ones that can get them going, or easy ones, where there’s a breakdown. He has to really earn.”
During practice Friday, Bennett reminded his players not to “let Stoglin turn that corner,” and their focus at the defensive end pleased him.
“That kind of intensity, how you’re trying to guard, that will carry you over,” Bennett told them.
Saturday’s game marks the first meeting of the season between these longtime ACC rivals. It won’t be the last. In the regular-season finale, UVa plays March 4 in College Park. The ACC tournament starts four days later in Atlanta.