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Nov. 20, 2012

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — A break is coming for the UVa men’s basketball team, which has earned one. By about 9 p.m. Tuesday, the Cavaliers will have played six games in 12 days, a schedule that would tax an NBA team.

“I am a little exhausted,” Virginia’s Akil Mitchell said Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena. “I’m getting old, though,” the junior forward added with a smile.

After Tuesday, the Wahoos won’t play again until Nov. 28, when they visit Wisconsin for a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game. Their goal is to head into Thanksgiving on a three-game winning streak. For that to happen, UVa (3-2) must defeat North Texas (3-2), its opponent Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the final NIT Preseason Tip-Off game at JPJ.

The Mean Green are “a very good mid-major team that will challenge us,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, “but it’s another opportunity for us to take a step, and that’s what this is about for us.”

North Texas figures to pose more problems for Virginia than Lamar did. The `Hoos, playing at JPJ for the fifth time in nine days, trailed for all of 11 seconds Monday night in a 63-44 romp.

The Cardinals (0-4) scored the game’s first basket, but sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson, uncovered on the left wing, buried a 3-pointer to put Virginia ahead 3-2. Lamar coach Pat Knight, livid about his team’s defensive breakdown, called a timeout at the 18:56 mark.

Knight, one of Bob Knight’s sons, stresses defense, as his father did during a legendary coaching career. But the remaining 39 minutes didn’t go much better for the Cardinals, a team’s that rebuilding after making the NCAA tournament last season. By game’s end, seven players had scored at least five points apiece for the Cavaliers. They included Jesperson, who finished with a career-best nine points — all on treys — and matched his career high with five rebounds.

“It was long overdue,” said Jesperson, who came in shooting 29.4 percent from the floor. “I know I put a lot of work in this offseason, so I’m hoping that this is a stepping stone for the rest of the season.”

Virginia also got strong efforts from junior swingman Joe Harris (17 points), Mitchell (10 points, eight rebounds) and redshirt freshman point guard Teven Jones, who in his first start contributed six points, two assists, one steal, one blocked shot and only one turnover.

“I thought Teven gave us another nice lift,” Bennett said.

With senior point guard Jontel Evans sidelined until at least next week with a foot injury, Jones has emerged as a key figure for the `Hoos. He was suspended for the Nov. 9 opener, a 63-59 loss at George Mason, and then missed the next two games with a shoulder injury. But Jones sparked the Cavaliers in his college debut, an 83-43 romp over Seattle University on Saturday, and he delivered again against Lamar.

“I like what he’s brought,” Bennett said, “and I think it’s made us better the last two games with him on the floor.”

Had the Cavaliers defeated Delaware at JPJ last Tuesday night, they would be in New York City this week, preparing to play in the NIT Preseason Tipoff semifinals. Alas, their loss to the Blue Hens meant the `Hoos would host two more tournament games at JPJ, neither against a marquee opponent.

“Obviously we’re disappointed that we didn’t get to Madison Square Garden,” Harris said. “That would be the ultimate. But we’re going to make the most of the situation that we’re in.”

Harris, UVa’s best player, struggled Saturday against Seattle, after which Bennett publicly and privately challenged him to elevate his performance. Against Lamar, Harris hit 7 of 11 shots from the floor and also had five rebounds, three steals, two blocked shots and two assists, with no turnovers.

“He responded,” Bennett said Monday night.

“I like the word `efficient,’ and I think good players are efficient. I think Joe tonight, he brought that. And that’s the sign of a mature player. I told our guys in there after the game, another sign is when you make a mistake and you don’t let it affect you for more than a possession. And I think that’s something that some of our guys are continuing to learn, to play through that.”

North Texas has an NBA prospect in sophomore Tony Mitchell, a 6-8, 235-pound forward who’s averaging 15.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. In the first game at JPJ on Monday, Mitchell totaled 21 points, nine rebounds, four blocks, three steals and two assists to lead the Mean Green to an 80-66 win over IUPUI.

“You always look forward to playing good players,” said Akil Mitchell, who’s averaging 12.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. “I watched him a little bit [against IUPUI], and he’s big, strong, athletic. He’s got an NBA body. It’ll be a good match-up. I’m excited to play him.”

Tony Mitchell and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, who later became the first pick in this year’s NBA draft, were the only freshmen in the NCAA to average double-doubles in 2011-12.

“He’s very active,” Bennett said of Mitchell. “He can hurt you in a lot of ways … We’ll be playing against a lot of guys like him [in the ACC], so we’ll have to be ready. But he might be, out of everybody we’ve played this year, the most talented individual player we’ve gone up against.”

Pat Knight spoke highly of Bennett after the game, and the feeling is mutual. They’ve known each other for years and have much in common.

Knight played for his father at Indiana and later was an assistant under him at Indiana and Texas Tech. Bennett, of course, played for his father, Dick, at Green Bay and later worked with him at Wisconsin and Washington State.

“I like Pat a lot,” Bennett said. “I remember he was really good to my sister when she was the coach at Indiana, and my father and his father certainly have a good relationship, and there’s so much respect there.”

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