By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the game’s final minutes, the sight of Jontel Evans on the bench, unable to play after reinjuring his right foot, tempered the joy of UVa basketball fans Wednesday night. Otherwise, though, the mood was upbeat at John Paul Jones Arena as the Cavaliers locked up yet another foe.
“There is no greater satisfaction than frustrating a team with your defense,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said after Virginia defeated Tennessee 46-38.
For the fourth time this season, the Wahoos (7-2) held an opponent to fewer than 50 points. The first three, however, were from mid-major conferences. The Volunteers (4-3) were picked to finish fourth in the SEC.
“We knew coming in that Tennessee was going to be a really tough test for us,” UVa swingman Joe Harris said after scoring 13 points and grabbing six rebounds. “They’re a physical and talented team, so for us to come out with a win is huge for us.”
To call the Vols offensively challenged might be an understatement. Tennessee, after all, was coming off a 37-36 loss to Georgetown. But the Volunteers are a formidable defensive team themselves, and nobody expected a shootout at JPJ.
“Both of us are trying to find ourselves offensively,” said Tony Bennett, Virginia’s fourth-year coach.
Tennessee, which shot 28.8 percent from the floor, never led. The teams were tied twice, at 2-2 and 4-4, but then sophomore forward Darion Atkins started a 17-2 run for the `Hoos, hitting a jumper that made it 6-4.
Against a big, strong, athletic Tennessee frontcourt, the 6-8 Atkins finished with eight points, five rebounds and three blocked shots, and the 6-8 Mitchell delivered another double-double (13 points and 12 rebounds), his fourth of the season.
“You’re seeing Darion and Akil have a very nice stretch of basketball and come into their own,” Bennett said.
“They’re active. I keep repeating that, but that makes a difference on the defensive end, on the glass, and Darion has a soft touch, as you saw early, and Akil’s really developed some of his moves. And some of his offensive rebounds were very impressive tonight.”
Harris said: “Coming into the game, Coach had talked about how Darion and Akil kind of overmatched their opponents that we’ve played up to this point with their quickness and how tonight was going to be a little bit different of a test, but they matched Tennessee’s bigs every play. I thought they did just a great job getting rebounds and then just attacking them offensively.”
For all their misses, the Vols never stopped battling. After Harris, in the lane, caught an inbounds lob from Evans and scored to make it 36-21 with 14:06 left, Tennessee answered with a 12-2 run.
Virginia’s only points during that stretch came on a jump hook by Atkins with 11:31 remaining. The Cavaliers wouldn’t score again for more than six minutes.
“We kind of hit a drought there, and it was tough to get a clean look,” Harris said.
During such a lull, Mitchell said, “you kind of start getting antsy. You feel like the game’s getting a little slow and the team hasn’t gotten a bucket for a while. I wasn’t sure how long it had taken, but as a player your clock starts to go off, and you kind of start to think, `We need a bucket.’ ”
With 5:15 left and UVa’s lead down to five, Bennett called a timeout. When play resumed, his team flawlessly executed a pick-and-roll, Harris feeding Mitchell for a layup that allowed the Cavaliers and their fans to exhale.
But more tense moments were to come for Virginia. Mitchell and Harris each missed the front end of a one-and-one in the final 3:25, allowing the suspense to build inside JPJ, and a stickback by 6-8, 270-pound Jarnell Stokes pulled Tennessee to 42-38 with 36.5 seconds left.
UVa inbounded the ball to freshman guard Teven Jones, who was fouled with 32 seconds left. Jones was scoreless to that point and, had Evans not limped off the court with 13:41 left, might have been on the bench. As Jones approached the line for his one-and-one, the shot clock went dark, forcing a delay. Bennett, on the bench, turned to Ronnie Wideman, UVa’s assistant athletics director for men’s basketball.
“I said to Ronnie, `Now the clock’s gonna go out? What’s going on here?’ ” Bennett recalled after the game.
Virginia’s players had the same reaction. “We were like, `Come on, man, just let him get up there and get in his rhythm and take the foul shots,’ ” Harris said with a smile.
The man on the line, however, was unfazed.
“I’m a pretty good free-throw shooter,” Jones said. “I’m confident in doing it, so it really didn’t make a difference.”
Sure enough, after the clock was reset, Jones calmly hit both ends of the one-and-one. Tennessee missed at the other end, and UVa sophomore Paul Jesperson added two free throws with 19.6 seconds left to close out the scoring.
Among those cheering from the UVa bench in the final minute was Evans, who’d returned from the training room with 5:22 left. Evans had pulled himself from the game after experiencing pain in his right foot, on which he had surgery Oct. 2 to repair a stress fracture.
At the postgame press conference, Bennett offered no details about Evans’ status, but the senior point guard is not likely to play Saturday when Virginia, in its last game before the break for final exams, hosts Mississippi Valley State at JPJ.
“It’s kind of a bummer,” Harris said. “He kind of tweaked his foot a little bit there. I’m not sure exactly how he did it. I know he was pretty frustrated, but he said after the game that he just tweaked it and he just needs some time to rest it.”
Evans, who sat out five of UVa’s six games this season while rehabbing his foot, played 16 minutes against Wisconsin on Nov. 28 and 23 minutes against Green Bay three days later. He made his first start of the season — and 71st of his UVa career — against Tennessee and, after struggling with his shot in the first half, scored on two drives early in the second half.
“I hope it’s not anything too bad,” Bennett said.
The victory was the sixth straight for the `Hoos since a Nov. 13 loss to Delaware in the second round of the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament.
“We have grown up so much,” Mitchell said. “We have matured as a team and found an identity. With a Tony Bennett team you really know what that identity is. We’ve really embraced it, and it’s getting us Ws, so I can’t complain.”
Bennett said: “I think we’re going in the right direction. I think there’s better basketball out there for us. I think there were stretches [against Tennessee] where we weren’t the prettiest, but it’s a grind for us, and we just keep trying to define what Virginia basketball is going to have to look like.”