By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett looked at the final box score Tuesday night and saw several things that displeased him, most notably his team’s 12 second-half turnovers and North Texas’ 21 offensive rebounds.
But UVa’s fourth-year men’s basketball coach also saw much to like, including sophomore forward Darion Atkins’ 10 points and career-high nine rebounds, freshman swingman Justin Anderson’s 14 points and no turnovers, freshman guard Teven Jones’ 13 points and four assists, and freshman forward Evan Nolte’s 13 points and three assists.
His young players have “matured and they’ve grown and are starting to understand — not fully yet — how they have to play,” Bennett said after Virginia defeated North Texas 80-64 at John Paul Jones Arena.
For the Cavaliers (4-2), the game was their sixth in 12 days and marked the end of their NIT Preseason Tip-Off adventure. It also produced their third straight victory. Not coincidentally, the game was the third straight in which the Wahoos have had the services of Jones, who has been enormously important to a team whose No. 1 point guard, senior Jontel Evans, has been limited to three minutes this season because of an injury.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” Bennett said when asked about the 6-0 Jones, who enrolled at the University in January but did not play for the Cavaliers in 2011-12.
A suspension for violating team rules kept Jones out of UVa’s two closed scrimmages (against VCU and Baylor) and its season-opener, a 63-59 loss at George Mason. A pinched nerve then caused him to miss Virginia’s next two games — a shaky win over Fairfield and a six-point loss to Delaware.
Jones made his college debut Saturday against Seattle and played well in UVa’s 83-43 rout. Two nights later, in a 63-44 romp over Lamar, he showed he was no one-game wonder, and Jones sparkled again in his 31 minutes against North Texas (3-3).
Fatigue affected Jones in the second half Tuesday night, Bennett said, and he “wasn’t as sharp with the little things, but he did enough things, and I was very pleased with the lift he gave us.”
Jones, who made 6 of 7 free throws Tuesday night, rolled his ankle early in the second half and spent a few minutes on the bench with athletic trainer Ethan Saliba. But Jones eventually re-entered the game. He’s enjoying a role that he didn’t envision for himself before Evans suffered a foot injury in late September.
“At first I didn’t,” Jones said, “but then when Jontel went down, I knew I had an opportunity to play a lot and just come in in his place while he’s hurt. I’m just looking to run the team till he comes back. When he comes back, I’ll have no problem coming off the bench after him and giving backup minutes.”
Against a talented mid-major opponent that has an NBA prospect in 6-8, 235-pound sophomore Tony Mitchell, Virginia took control early. Eleven minutes in, it was 29-12, and the `Hoos led 42-22 at halftime.
“The first half was the best half of basketball that we’ve put out there,” Bennett said, “and I thought [the Cavaliers] were very active on the defensive end, swarming the ball, bothering the post.”
UVa scored the first four points of the second half to push its lead to 24. But a letdown, perhaps inevitable, followed for the Cavaliers. The Mean Green began pressing aggressively, and the `Hoos “got rattled,” Bennett said.
Twice in a 13-second span, Virginia was called for five-second violations after not being able to inbound the ball against North Texas’ full-court press. The Mean Green scored on 10 consecutive possessions during one second-half stretch, and just like that UVa’s lead was down to nine.
Not to worry. Junior forward Akil Mitchell scored inside, and then junior swingman Joe Harris, on a night when Virginia shot a JPJ-record 72.7 percent from 3-point range, buried a trey, and suddenly it was 61-47.
North Texas answered with five straight points, but UVa sealed its victory with a 10-2 run that ended with a free throw by Anderson, who had been fouled after receiving a between-the-legs pass from sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson in transition.
“No disrespect to Paul, but I don’t think anybody in the crowd saw that coming,” Anderson said, smiling.
Five freshmen played for Virginia against North Texas: Anderson, Jones, Nolte, guard Taylor Barnette and center Mike Tobey. Barnette didn’t attempt a shot, but the other four were a combined 14 for 23 from the floor.
Nolte was 3 for 3 from beyond the 3-point arc and 5 for 5 overall. His 13 points were a season high, as were Anderson’s 14 and Jones’ 13.
“We have a great freshman class,” Anderson said, “and [want to] just continue to build on what we’re doing now. We don’t want to rely on the excuse, `They’re young.’ We don’t want to rely on the excuse, `They’re just freshmen, they make freshman mistakes.’ ”
On a team whose scholarship players include only one senior and two juniors, the freshmen have been cast in prominent roles in part because “we don’t have [other] options,” Bennett said, “and that’s good for them. They have to play. That’s why they came here.”
Atkins, a graduate of the Landon School in Bethesda, Md., didn’t have as many opportunities as a freshman in 2011-12, when Virginia had a dominant post player in 6-8 forward Mike Scott and, for the first 17 games, an experienced center in 7-0 Assane Sene.
The 6-8, 225-pound Atkins averaged only 2.3 points as a freshman. This season, though, he’s emerging as a viable low-post option on offense. Against North Texas, Atkins scored several times on what has become his signature move, a right-handed half-hook.
In 2011-12, Bennett recalled, Scott “was obviously our go-to guy and played the majority of the minutes, but Darion’s active and mobile, and he actually has soft touch around the basket. I think you’re starting to see that. As all those young guys get stronger, they’re going to get better and better.
“Confidence is an amazing thing, and he’s getting more comfortable. He gives us a lot on the defensive end. Especially when he’s engaged and locked in, he’s so quick.”
Atkins credited his improvement on offense to a “lot effort and a lot of work and a lot of sweat and a lot of tears. The coaches told me that they wanted me to produce more on the offensive end, and I took advantage of it in the offseason, and I feel like it’s coming along now.”
He’s always had big-time potential on defense, and Atkins blocked two shots Tuesday night. He often was matched against Tony Mitchell, North Texas’ marquee player. Mitchell, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, is touted as a future NBA draft pick, but that “didn’t really mean anything to me,” Atkins said.
“I knew that he was going to be a high-caliber guy, the [kind of] guy that we’re basically going to see throughout the season. I just took it as a challenge … I knew it was going to be real physical, and I feel like I met the physicality.”
The Cavaliers, who are off for Thanksgiving, will reconvene for practice Friday afternoon. Virginia’s next game is Nov. 28 at Wisconsin, and Bennett hopes to have Evans back for that Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, which ESPN2 will carry.
“He’s done a little more each day,” Bennett said. “Could he have played tonight? Maybe if it was the last game of the year, but we wanted to be smart.”
Bennett, of course, is a Wisconsin native who knows all about the Badgers’ proud history in hoops and the challenges that opponents face in the Kohl Center. His father, Dick, guided Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000, and the younger Bennett was an assistant there.
“A lot of memories, a lot of unbelievable things have happened in that state and that gym,” Tony Bennett said.
“It’ll be an opportunity for our team. I know how good [the Badgers] are. They’re big, they’re good, I understand what that arena’s like. I’m looking for our team to hopefully step up. I know we’ll have to be ready to play, because if you’re not, that’s a very tough place.”