By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s about 350 miles from the University of Virginia to Madison Square Garden. Figuratively speaking, the UVa men’s basketball team made it halfway there Monday night.

In the Cavaliers’ home opener — also their first game in the NIT Season Tip-Off — they struggled for long stretches against Fairfield in front of a listless crowd at John Paul Jones Arena. But led by junior Joe Harris, Virginia finally pulled away for a 54-45 victory. In doing so, the Wahoos accomplished their primary objective.

“Running and dunking and getting out and beating a team by 40” would have been preferable, junior forward Akil Mitchell said, but “we just had to survive this game, and that’s exactly what we did.”

In the late game Monday at JPJ, Delaware defeated Penn 84-69. UVa (1-1) hosts Delaware (1-1) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in an early-season game with unusually high stakes. The winner’s reward will be a trip to New York City, where four teams will convene next week for the final two rounds of this tournament.

“You’re playing for a chance now to play at Madison Square Garden, which is no small thing,” said Tony Bennett, Virginia’s fourth-year coach.

In his team’s opener, Friday night at George Mason, Bennett had started three freshmen (Justin Anderson, Taylor Barnette and Mike Tobey) alongside juniors Harris and Mitchell. Against Fairfield (0-2), Bennett tinkered with his first five, replacing Anderson and Tobey with sophomores Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson.

“That’s about as veteran as we could get,” said Bennett, who has only one senior, injured point guard Jontel Evans, among the scholarship players on his roster.

The 6-3 Barnette took the first shift at point guard Monday night but wasn’t effective. Neither was his replacement, 5-11 senior Doug Browman, a walk-on who had played well at Mason.

“I think [Fairfield’s] guards sensed that they could speed up Taylor and Doug,” Bennett said, “and so we went with a guy that I thought could handle it and use his body a little more.”

That would be Harris, the team’s leading scorer. Harris stands 6-6 and is most comfortable on the wing, but with Evans, sophomore Malcolm Brogdon and, now, redshirt freshman Teven Jones sidelined by injuries, Virginia had few options at point guard.

“It’s not ideal with Joe playing the lead guard, but I thought he did a good job, and I thought he could stay with [his Fairfield counterpart],” Bennett said. “Again, it wasn’t ideal, but we’d done that in some of the scrimmages, and until we get guys back, we’ll have to continue to do that.”

Harris finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one blocked shot, one steal and only one turnover.

“I’m just doing whatever Coach asks of me, whatever the staff wants me to do,” Harris said. “If they’re going to ask me to play the 5, the 4, whatever, it doesn’t really matter.”

In 2011-12, when the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament, their offense usually ran through All-ACC forward Mike Scott. With Scott in the NBA, Harris knows he must be more assertive, on and off the court.

“It’s definitely a lot different,” he said. “Time goes pretty quick. It feels like I was just a first-year the other day. But being an upperclassman on this team, and with all the young guys that we have, I’ve taken on a lot more of a leadership role.”

One of those young guys is forward Evan Nolte, a 6-8 freshman from the Atlanta area who contributed 11 points off the bench against Fairfield. Bennett raves about Nolte’s basketball acumen, and it was easy to see why Monday night.

“He really gave us a spark off the bench today, and I’m really proud of him,” said Mitchell, who finished with a career-best 12 points and a game-high eight rebounds. “There’s always a guy that has to come in and give really energetic minutes, and Evan really stepped in and did a good job out there.”

In addition to scoring inside and out, Nolte had two assists and three steals, one of which gave the ‘Hoos a much-needed boost in the final seconds of the first half. After Anderson passed to Mitchell for a basket that pulled UVa to 30-26, Nolte swiped Fairfield freshman Josip Mikulic’s inbounds pass and beat the halftime buzzer with a layup.

“I knew [Mikulic] was kind of a young guy, the big guy who was taking the ball out,” said Nolte, already sounding like a seasoned veteran. “The clock was running down, and I kind of acted like I was going back [up the court].”

Instead, Nolte darted in for the steal and the layup.

“I thought the lift that Nolte gave us the whole game was significant,” Bennett said, “but that burst at the end of the half really made a difference.”

The Stags hit 6 of 11 attempts from beyond the arc and shot 52.2 percent from the floor overall in the first half, and Bennett went to the locker room dissatisfied with his team’s defensive effort. His halftime words produced the desired result.

Fairfield missed 19 of 24 shots from the floor after intermission and scored only two points in the final seven minutes. On the perimeter, Bennett went with Harris, Anderson and Jesperson, all listed at 6-6, for much of the second half, and their length bothered the Stags.

“I thought we were a little better on our ball-screen defense, a little quicker to the close-outs,” Bennett said. “Again, though, a few times [the Stags got] some second-chance points, and that frustrated me, but the defense slowly started taking hold, and I think they got a little tired, and then their shots weren’t as close.”

The Cavaliers, who made 10 of 20 field-goal attempts in the first 20 minutes, shot significantly worse (9 of 27) in the second half, mainly because of their baffling inability to convert putback attempts around the basket.

That was “hard to fathom,” Bennett said, “but it happened.”

Also hard to believe was UVa’s latest injury. The 5-11 Jones, who sat out the opener while serving a suspension for violating team rules, was eligible to play Monday night, “and I was going to use him, because he has some quickness,” Bennett said.

In pregame warmups, though, Jones experienced shooting pains — perhaps caused by a pinched nerve, Bennett said — that made it difficult for him to raise his arm.

“There’s another point guard that’s not ready for us,” Bennett said, shaking his head.

Whether Jones might be available against Delaware was not clear Monday night. With or without him, the `Hoos will try to book a Thanksgiving week visit to New York City.

“That’s a big deal,” Mitchell said. “You always dream as a kid of wanting to play in the Garden.”

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