By Jeff White (email@example.com)
PARIS — Had the 12 players stayed stuck between floors on an elevator at the University of Virginia basketball team’s hotel in this city, the game scheduled for a few hours later at the arena one block away, Stade Pierre de Coubertin, would have been canceled, or postponed, or forfeited.
Fortunately for all parties involved, disaster was averted, and the players — save Akil Mitchell, Evan Nolte and Taylor Barnette, who wisely had chosen to take other routes to their rooms — were freed by a repair crew after 45 minutes in extremely close proximity to one another.
“That was ridiculous,” sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson said, shaking his head.
“It was crazy,” freshman swingman Justin Anderson said, “but once again it was one of those things that brings us together … Luckily, nobody was claustrophobic.”
If that was an unorthodox team-building exercise Tuesday afternoon, it paid impressive dividends that night when UVa took the court for its rematch with AMW France. The local team, aided by some suspect scorekeeping, had edged the Cavaliers 71-67 on Monday night.
Twenty-four hours later, after the Star-Spangled Banner and La Marseillaise were played over the arena’s P.A. system, UVa exacted its revenge in the final game of its tour of Europe. The Wahoos trailed for only 19 seconds — and that in the first quarter — in a satisfying 82-65 victory.
“I think this was probably the most physical of all the games that we’ve played,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, “and I thought our guys embraced that physicality more. The officials, to be polite, were letting guys basically maul each other out there, so you just had to play, and you had to be strong with the ball, and you knew when shots went up there was going to be a lot of contact. I think there’s no other way to get the point across about how strong you have to be and how good a position you have to be in, except to be in a situation like that where if you’re out of position or you’re not really braced or ready, you’re going to get knocked on your can.”
Was it important to end the tour on a high note? The energy with which the `Hoos played — and coached — provided the answer.
“Absolutely,” said Anderson, who contributed 11 points. “Not only important so that we can go back to the hotel and enjoy the rest of the trip, but it was important coming off of the last three games where we didn’t play as well. We got back to the type of way we played in the first game, and I thought that’s why we played so well.”
Bennett wanted this one, too. That was clear from his reaction to a hard foul that knocked Harris to the floor on a fast break late in the third quarter.
“Don’t back down from these boys,” Bennett yelled at his players. “Don’t back down. Not one bit.”
Later, after nothing was called when Tobey was hacked on a shot attempt, Bennett barked at an official: “Don’t swallow your whistle. That’s a foul.”
Virginia finished 2-3 on this trip, winning its first game, against the Netherlands B team in a suburb of Amsterdam, and then the finale against an opponent that beat Kansas twice last week.
“I thought we improved [on the tour],” Bennett said. “We played well the first night. I was a little disappointed how we played the middle two games. Not the two games here. I thought we lost our way a little bit [in the Netherlands and in Belgium], understanding how important some basic things were for us to be in the game … We had guys on different pages.”
UVa used four starting lineups in Europe. The last one made its debut Tuesday night, when Bennett went with sophomore Darion Atkins, senior Jontel Evans and three freshmen: Nolte, Anderson and Barnette.
Bennett called them “hockey shifts” and said it “was good to see different guys get experiences.”
Ten minutes in, the Wahoos led 29-14 — the most points they would score in a quarter on this tour. “The France team was a little disinterested early,” Bennett noted.
At halftime, the Cavaliers’ lead was 49-38, but their intensity waned as AMW France’s picked up in the third quarter, and it was a four-point game heading into the final period.
With 6:10 left, AMW France had the ball, trailing by only three, but it missed a 3-point attempt, and UVa went on an 11-0 run to put the game away. Highlights included an Anderson steal and layup, a Jesperson 3-pointer that made it 72-60, and a slick pass from Jesperson to Mitchell for a dunk.
The 6-8, 234-pound Mitchell, who posted modest averages as a sophomore in 2011-12, established himself as the team’s most consistent frontcourt player on this trip. He averaged 13.4 points and 10 rebounds, and many of his boards came at the offensive end.
“Akil did some real nice things,” Bennett said. “He was real active. We really challenged him and whoever his sidekick was,” whether that was the 7-foot Tobey or the 6-8 Atkins or the 6-8 Nolte.
“We said we want two guys really attacking the offensive glass,” Bennett said, “and that’s where Akil can get some of his points and help us, just keeping balls alive and offensive putbacks. [The French players] were a little lazy on their block-outs, and he really made them pay. That’s the most active I’ve seen him, and I was happy to see that, because I think that’s important. That’s when he had some success for us at the end of last year, when he was real active on the offensive glass and the defensive glass.”
In the finale, Mitchell contributed 15 points and a team-high nine rebounds. Harris, a 6-6 swingman, added 13 points, and Evans, the Cavaliers’ starting point guard, had eight points and four assists.
Jesperson, who came to Europe with a back injury and missed the second game in the Netherlands because of pain, closed the scoring Tuesday night with his second trey. He finished with eight points and showed how much he means to the team, especially with classmate Malcolm Brogdon still recovering from foot surgery.
“I thought Paul did a nice job for us,” Bennett said. “He was real crafty with his passes and had good feel, so that was good to see.”
Jesperson said: “I wasn’t sure how my back was going to feel coming into [the trip]. The coaches were going to play me as my back [allowed], and it started to feel better, so I started to get to play more.”
As a freshman, Jesperson went into the season expecting to redshirt, but those plans changed abruptly after guard KT Harrell and big man James Johnson left the team midyear. Jesperson ended up playing in 21 games for a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament, but he shot only 27.9 percent from the floor and rarely looked comfortable on the court.
The 6-6 Jesperson heads into his second season with a more clearly defined role.
“That’s why I’m super-excited about this year,” he said. “I tried to work as hard as I could when I went home in the offseason on things that the coaches told me to work on, so I could be better prepared and help the team this year.”
Trips to the Louvre and to the Eiffel Tower are on the team’s itinerary for Wednesday. The Cavaliers, who arrived in Amsterdam early on Aug. 7, fly back to the States on Thursday.
“Another couple nights I’ll enjoy,” Bennett said with a smile after his team’s final game here, “and then I’ll be ready to go home.”
Virginia 29 20 10 23 — 82
AMW France 14 24 17 10 — 65
UVa — Anderson 11, Nolte 9, Evans 8, Atkins 6, Barnette 3, Mitchell 15, Harris 13, Jesperson 8, Tobey 6, Jones 3.
AMW France — Oniangue 24, Prenom 11, Albicy 9, Gailloux 4, Nzeuli 0, J. Aboudou 11, Toti 3, Ada 2, L. Aboudou 1.