Nov. 10, 2012

By Jeff White (

FAIRFAX — On opening night, on the road, against a talented opponent whose frenzied fans were in full voice at the Patriot Center, Tony Bennett went with perhaps the youngest starting lineup in the history of UVa men’s basketball: three freshmen and two juniors.

Bennett, the Cavaliers’ fourth-year coach, had little choice. Point guard Jontel Evans, the lone senior among Virginia’s scholarship players, and sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s sixth man for most of 2011-12, are sidelined with injuries.

Given that, the result Friday night wasn’t shocking, especially considering the caliber of the Cavaliers’ opponent. Colonial Athletic Association power George Mason figures to win a lot of games this season, and it came away from its opener with a stirring victory. The Patriots hit an improbable 3-pointer near the end of each half and held off the Wahoos 63-59 in front of a sellout crowd of 9,840.

The loss was the Cavaliers’ first in a season-opener since 1997-98, when they fell 83-79 to Richmond in double overtime at the Robins Center. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Friday night was the first time since 1997-98 that UVa played its opener outside of Charlottesville.

Junior guard Joe Harris, who led the `Hoos with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists Friday, remembers his first college game. It came against William and Mary in the friendly confines of John Paul Jones Arena, where UVa romped 76-52 on Nov. 12, 2010.

“Coach talked about it before the game [Friday],” Harris said, “just about how we’re not taking an easy route, we’re throwing these guys right into the fire, playing in a hostile environment against a good team.”

Forward Akil Mitchell was the other junior to start against Mason. Like Harris, Mitchell was part of the six-player recruiting class that joined Bennett’s program in 2010-11.

“My first year we came in with a lot of young guys, and I still don’t feel like we were thrown in the fire like these guys are,” said Mitchell, who scored a career-high 11 points and grabbed 7 rebounds Friday night. “It’s a good learning experience for them, but at the same time, if we’re going to do that, we have to be ready, and I don’t think we were as ready as we could have been today.”

In what was believed to be a first for a program that dates to 1905, three freshmen started for Virginia. Each struggled at times. Center Mike Tobey, swingman Justin Anderson and guard Taylor Barnette were a combined 5 for 17 from the floor and had only 14 points and 4 rebounds among them. Another first-year player, 6-8 forward Evan Nolte, made a bigger contribution off the bench, hitting two 3-pointers and handing out three assists.

Bennett believes the experience should pay dividends for his young players.

“They grow in these settings,” he said. “It was a great atmosphere … [It’s important] to try to grow from it, I said, `The progression starts here.’ I told our guys that. So what we take from it will determine if it was a worthwhile trip. But we had a chance and didn’t execute at the end, which was frustrating.”

With 4:29 left, Harris made two free throws to put UVa up 55-51. Mason answered with six straight points, though, and the noise from its fans shook Patriot Center. But Mitchell calmly sank two foul shots at the 1:33 mark to make it 57-57, and then the Cavaliers followed with one of their best defensive possessions.

That didn’t stop the Patriots from making the game’s pivotal basket. With the shot clock winding down, 6-3 guard Bryon Allen, well-covered by the 6-6 Anderson, stepped back and launched a shot from beyond the arc on the right wing.

“I didn’t have a good look at all,” Allen said. “Honestly, I was just trying to get it up on the boards, so my bigs could go get it.”

There was no rebound. The ball dropped through with a minute left, and the Patriots were ahead to stay. Still, inn a night when defensive lapses hurt the Cavaliers, Bennett had no problem with his players’ effort on that possession.

“I told them in the huddle, I’ll live with that,” Bennett said.

GMU got a similar boost on the final play of the first half, when 6-8 freshman Marko Gujanicic, covered by UVa’s most athletic player, Anderson, swished a 30-footer as time expired.

“More a lucky shot than anything,” Gujanicic said, before adding with a slight smile, “but I made it.”

With redshirt freshman guard Teven Jones serving a suspension, Virginia had only eight scholarship players available for the opener. (Senior point guard Doug Browman, a walk-on, had 3 rebounds, 2 assists and no turnovers in 11 minutes off the bench.)

Barnette started at the point, but Harris and Anderson brought the ball up periodically. As expected, the Patriots pressed at virtually every opportunity, and Virginia did not always handle it well. The `Hoos turned the ball over 12 times. That’s not “an alarming number,” Bennett said, several of those errors came at critical junctures. UVa’s defense was far from perfect, too, especially in the second half, when Mason shot 68.4 percent from the floor.

“We have to make it harder for opponents, and we’re working on that,” Bennett said.

“Certainly our guys laid it on the line, they worked hard, but when you’re in a game that close, a possession-by-possession game, I don’t know if our young guys understand the value of a possession on the defensive end, or on the offensive end.”

The 6-11 Tobey, who impressed in the team’s scrimmages against VCU and Baylor, played only 18 minutes Friday night, by far the fewest of any UVa starter. After missing all four of his field-goal attempts in the first half, Tobey was 2 for 2 after intermission, hitting a 3-pointer and a layup, but he finished with only one rebound.

“I thought he wasn’t quite up to speed defensively, and they were taking a little bit of advantage of him being late on some of those ball screens,” Bennett said. “He’s got to turn up that internal clock in his mind to get to places and be a little quicker anticipating or reacting. But the shots he took, they were all good shots in the first half, and he has touch and skill, and I think you’ll see that evolve as it goes.”

Virginia’s home opener is Monday night against Fairfield in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The winner of that 7 o’clock game will meet Penn or Delaware on Tuesday, with a trip to New York City on the line. Jones’ suspension is over, but Brogdon won’t be back anytime soon, and Evans is unlikely to return before UVa’s Nov. 17 game with Seattle.

Short-handed or not, the Cavaliers are eager to return to the court.

“I feel like we had a few costly turnovers [against GMU], and just some things we need to clean up, but I feel we’ll be fine,” Mitchell said.

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