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Nov. 14, 2012

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The game stopped for a timeout at the 10:53 mark of the first half Tuesday night. When the teams returned to the court, fans at John Paul Jones Arena spotted Jontel Evans and rose to give him a warm ovation.

Bub is back, and that’s wonderful news for the UVa men’s basketball team. For long stretches this season, Virginia has appeared lost without its starting point guard, who had surgery Oct. 2 to repair a stress fracture in his right foot and missed the first two games.

“Hearing that ovation and that excitement from the crowd, it just made just feel really warm inside that the Wahoo nation really appreciates what I do out there on the court,” Evans said after the game.

The 5-11 senior is not, however, ready to carry a full load — Evans played only three minutes Tuesday, all in the first half — and he watched helplessly as Delaware foiled Virginia’s bid to advance to Madison Square Garden for the final two rounds of the NIT Season Tip-Off.

Still, Evans said, as painful as these early-season struggles have been for the `Hoos, his young teammates ultimately may benefit from the experience.

“They’re going to have to learn, because it’s only going to get tougher, especially when we hit conference play,” said Evans, who has started 70 games in his college career. “But it is tough watching them play, because I can’t go out there and do anything.”

He made the ACC’s all-defensive team in 2011-12, and a healthy Evans no doubt would have bothered guards Jarvis Threatt and Devon Saddler, who combined for 29 points in the Blue Hens’ 59-53 victory.

Evans led Virginia in assists in 2010-11 and again last season, and his absence is also felt at the offensive end, particularly with the team’s No. 2 point guard, sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, still out with a foot injury. Another option at the point, redshirt freshman Teven Jones, was suspended for the opener and has missed the past two games with an injury.

“It’s hard to live just off catch-and-shoot or on the perimeter,” said Tony Bennett, UVa’s fourth-year coach. “You have to, whether it’s with post feeds or penetration, draw the defense in and get action, and we really don’t have, unless we give a guy a bump off of a screen right now, anybody who can do that. And that’s where Jontel can put pressure on, and other guys could, but they’re not healthy right now.”

Freshman Taylor Barnette started at the point in Virginia’s first two games, but he played only five minutes Tuesday night, and that was at shooting guard. Bennett used 6-6 junior Joe Harris and 6-6 freshman Justin Anderson, both natural wings, and 5-11 senior Doug Browman, a walk-on, at point guard against Delaware (2-1). Each had some good moments in that role, but the Cavaliers’ offense remains largely out of sync without Evans and his penetrating ability.

In the first half Tuesday, UVa (1-2) shot 22.2 percent from the floor and found itself down 28-15 at the break. The Cavaliers’ deficit grew to 18 early in the second half before they awoke from the offensive slumber. The comeback peaked at the 7:54 mark, when a 3-pointer by freshman forward Evan Nolte put the `Hoos up 42-41.

Unfazed, Delaware answered with eight straight points, six coming on treys by Saddler, who was scoreless at the half. Virginia fought back again and pulled to 51-50 on a drive by Harris, but three turnovers in the final three minutes — one on a shot-clock violation — assured that Bennett’s team would be playing at JPJ, and not Madison Square Garden, next week.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” said Harris, who led UVa with 20 points. “We talked about how it’s a goal for every basketball player, it’s something you dream about, being able to play in the Garden. Unfortunately, we don’t get a chance to go play, but we’re going to rebuild, prepare for Seattle U and just keep moving forward from here on out.”

UVa plays Seattle at JPJ at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Cavaliers will be back at JPJ on Monday and Tuesday nights to host consolation games in the NIT Season Tip-Off.

“As hard as that is, you gotta grow from it,” Bennett said. “It’s not the end of the world, but [New York is] an opportunity that would have been great for our young team, a great experience to play. We’ll have plenty of other opportunities to play against high-quality teams, but that’s a special privilege, and you have to earn it. And Delaware earned it. We couldn’t.

“You play that kind of first half, and that’s a hole that’s almost too deep to come back from, though I take my hat off to our guys for how they battled.”

Virginia opened the season with a loss at George Mason, which like Delaware is expected to contend for the Colonial Athletic Association title. The `Hoos bounced back to beat Fairfield in their NIT Season Tip-Off opener and then, 24 hours later, took on the Blue Hens, with a trip to New York City at stake.

Bennett has started a different lineup each game. The only constants have been Harris and 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell, who contributed 15 points and 13 rebounds against Delaware, both career highs. That marked the third straight career high in scoring for Mitchell, who emerged as an offensive threat during UVa’s tour of Europe in August.

Nolte made his first start Tuesday night and had three steals, but he missed 7 of 8 shots from the floor. The only reserve to score for UVa was 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, whose 11 points all came in the second half.

“Honestly, I’d say I wasn’t mentally there [in the first half],” Atkins told reporters after the game. “I can’t really tell you guys what snapped. I just came out and played my game.”

To miss out on the Garden experience is “a heartbreaker,” Atkins said. “We all really, really, really wanted to go, so we have to come out and be ready for Saturday and play our hardest. We just gotta go from there.”

Eight minutes in Tuesday night, Virginia led 6-2, and it appeared Delaware might not break 20 points. But the Blue Hens eventually began to crack UVa’s defense, which weakened as its offensive woes mounted.

“I thought we were terrific defensively for about 10 minutes,” Bennett said, “but when you’re struggling to score, that puts a lot of pressure on your defense, and they have some guys who are very talented off the dribble and can do some things, and they really extended the lead.”

Virginia has trailed at halftime of every game this season. Mitchell said he doesn’t know what’s causing the slow starts, but “whatever it is, we really need to fix it, because it’s really costing us late in games and putting us in bad situations. I just feel like we need to come out with a little more energy and be ready right out of the gate.”

Evans should help on that front. UVa’s medical staff cleared him Tuesday to play as many as 10 minutes against Delaware. He was eager to make his 2012-13 debut, even an abbreviated one.

“It felt great warming up with my teammates, those guys encouraging me, seeing the smiles on their faces,” Evans said. “It just really gave me a lift.”

In his three-minute stint, Evans had two turnovers, one rebound and one foul.

“He wanted to try to get his feet wet,” Bennett said. “Obviously he was a little rusty, but hopefully that helps him as we progress with him. I hope he can do more and more as we get going, because that’s going to mean something for us.”

Harris said: “It’s great to see Jontel out there. He’s been working relentlessly with his rehab, and for him to come back out there, it’s just a boost to have our captain and our leader out there … and I know he’s going to progress really well from here on out.”

At halftime, Evans stayed on the bench while his teammates warmed up. His night was over.

“I didn’t reinjure it,” he said. “It’s just sore. I don’t want anybody to worry. It’s just sore. Nothing bad.”

His foot has “been feeling really good,” Evans said. “I’ve been walking really well. I’ve been cutting and running full speed. It’s just when I got out there, I don’t know what happened. Maybe the tape was too much. I don’t know. But it feels good, though. I’m still progressing. I’m not [having] any lapses.”

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