By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With 13:31 remaining Saturday, Jontel Evans finally got his first basket of the season, and the amused look on the UVa senior’s face as he ran back down the court told the story.
Evans’ points came not on a layup or a floater or a pull-up jumper. They came on a low-post move on which the 5-11, 193-pound point guard caught an entry pass from freshman Evan Nolte and then successfully challenged 6-7, 220-pound Jordan Fouse in the paint.
“That was crazy,” Evans said after UVa’s 67-51 victory over Green Bay.
Assistant coach Ron Sanchez had assured Evans during the Cavaliers’ shootaround Saturday that the play might work for him. Sure enough, when an opportunity presented itself in the second half at John Paul Jones Arena, “Evan looked at me and it was right there, and I just threw it up, and it went in,” Evans said.
Those were Evans’ only points against the Phoenix (3-4), but he made his presence known in other ways. He finished with seven assists, a career-high five steals and three rebounds to help the Wahoos (6-2) extend their winning streak to five games.
In a game in which junior forward Akil Mitchell and junior swingman Joe Harris scored 20 points apiece for UVa, Evans played a season-high 23 minutes. A member of the ACC’s all-defensive team in 2011-12, Evans had surgery Oct. 2 to repair a stress fracture in his right foot and played only three minutes in Virginia’s first six games, five of which he sat out.
His foot healthy again, Evans was in for 16 minutes Wednesday night in UVa’s 60-54 win at Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. He grabbed four rebounds but missed both of his shots from the floor, turned the ball over once and had no assists. And as the rest of the team celebrated one of the signature victories of Tony Bennett’s four seasons as UVa’s coach, Evans struggled to muster a smile.
“Honestly, I was frustrated with myself, and that was very selfish of me,” Evans recalled Saturday evening. “It was a great team win, and my team did really well, and all I could think about was myself, because I was frustrated I didn’t play the way I was capable of playing.
“I should have been excited with my teammates, but I was kind of down about the way I played … and that was no way for me to lead, being a senior. I really set a bad example to the young guys, and I just came in here and apologized and took that and decided just to be a good teammate. Even if things don’t go my way, I still have to be positive.”
Freshman Teven Jones made his fourth straight start at point guard for UVa and didn’t hurt the team Saturday, but Evans is likely to supplant him soon. In the second half, after the Phoenix pulled to 40-36, Evans reminded fans at JPJ and viewers watching on TV how much havoc he can wreak on the court.
His smothering defense forced Green Bay to take a contested 3-pointer as the shot clock ran down. Virginia grabbed the rebound and started a possession that ended with sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson’s second 3-pointer of the game. Evans later threw a perfect lob pass to Mitchell, who laid the ball in, and then fed Jesperson in transition for a layup.
Virginia’s final points came on a pass from Evans to Mitchell, who dunked to make it 67-50 with 5:15 left.
“Jontel’s huge,” Harris said. “Obviously, he’s a great defender, and then offensively, he can almost get to the paint at will, it seems like, and it opens up a ton for our offense, especially for guys like me and Paul, shooters on the wing.”
The 6-6 Harris, who scored a season-high 22 points against Wisconsin, made only 1 of 7 shots from beyond the arc in that game. He was much more accurate Saturday, hitting 4 of 7 from long range and 8 of 14 overall.
Such performances from Harris are no longer surprising. The 6-8, 234-pound Mitchell, however, had never scored more than 10 points in a college game before this season, and he hadn’t scored more than 15 before Saturday.
With every passing game, it seems, Mitchell grows more polished on offense. Against Green Bay, Bennett’s alma mater, he went 9 for 12 from the floor and 2 for 2 from the line. He scored on jumpers, layups and dunks, including a slam he threw down after dribbling through traffic to the basket.
“That was amazing,” Evans said.
For the season, Mitchell leads UVa in rebounding (9.4 per game), and he’s second in scoring (12.6 ppg) behind Harris (16.5).
“He’s just playing with a whole lot of confidence,” Evans said. “I’m really proud of him. He’s really stepping up this year, and I just asked that he keep doing it. I told him at the end of the game, `You have to do that every game from here on out.’ ”
Mitchell isn’t likely to score 20 points every time out, but he’s made remarkable progress offensively since arriving at UVa in 2010 as an unheralded recruit from Charlotte Christian School in North Carolina.
“I’ve worked hard over the last few years,” Mitchell said, “and the coaches have slowly [shown] more and more confidence in me, and as they’ve given me more leeway, I’ve built my confidence up, and I just feel good right now. My shot feels good, my moves feel good, so I’m just moving along.”
Mitchell’s offensive contributions are much appreciated, Bennett said, “but he’s always got to keep sight of who he is on the defensive end and the glass and let his game expand from that. And when he has that mindset, he’s very effective. This is the best I’ve seen him … I think it always goes back to understanding who you are and taking what the game gives you, and he did that today.”
Darion Atkins has been starting alongside Mitchell in the frontcourt, and the 6-8, 222-pound sophomore had another strong game Saturday, finishing with seven points, 11 rebounds, four rejections and three assists. The rebounds and assists were career highs for Atkins, and the blocks tied his career high.
“They’re quick,” Bennett said of Mitchell and Atkins. “That quickness is important. Now, they’re not the bulkiest of guys, but they can use their feet and their position to be effective, and I like what I’m seeing. Then when you get some scoring inside from them, or offensive rebounds … it really helps our offense.”
UVa, which led by only four at the break, blew the game open in the first 10 minutes of the second half. The ‘Hoos got careless late, turning the ball over five times in the final 4:16. By then, however, they had a commanding lead, and there was no suspense as the seconds ticked off the clock.
“I thought we were rusty early, but the second half we played the way we needed to,” Bennett said.
NEXT UP: UVa hosts Tennessee (4-2) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena. The Volunteers are coming off a 37-36 loss to Georgetown in Washington, D.C.
As unsightly as that game might have been, Tennessee’s defense impressed Bennett.
The Hoyas are “a very talented, in my opinion, offensive team, and [Tennessee] locked them down,” Bennett said. “That’ll be the most athletic team we’ll have played up to this point, with size and physicality.”
The Cavaliers lead the series 7-4. These teams last met March 18, 2007, in Columbus, Ohio, where Tennessee edged UVa 77-74 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Both teams have changed head coaches since then.