By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nearly a month later, UVa’s loss to Delaware in men’s basketball looks like an aberration. Since that Nov. 13 game at John Paul Jones Arena, Delaware has dropped six of its seven games, and Virginia has won seven in a row.
The Cavaliers will have to wait a while to try to run their winning streak to eight. Final exams begin Monday at the University, and fourth-year coach Tony Bennett’s team won’t play again until Dec. 19, when Morgan State comes to town.
“It is what it is, as they say,” Bennett told reporters Saturday evening after Virginia mauled Mississippi Valley State 67-39 at JPJ.
“Obviously, the finals are very important … When you’re playing well, you want to keep playing, but it’s always this way at this time of year.”
For the first time since the 1948-49 season, when they gave up 38 points to Langley Field on Dec. 3 and then 39 to the Richmond Royals three days later, the Cavaliers have held opponents to fewer than 40 points in back-to-back games. (Virginia defeated Tennessee 46-38 on Wednesday night.)
Mississippi Valley State (0-5) was as overmatched as any opponent UVa (8-2) has faced since JPJ opened in 2006. The Delta Devils never led Saturday and shot only 19 percent from the floor, the lowest ever by a Virginia foe. Moreover, MVSU’s 11 field goals tied the UVa record for fewest by an opponent.
The Delta Devils were no better on defense. The Wahoos finished with eight dunks — most coming in their halfcourt offense — and got virtually any shot they wanted Saturday.
“It was pretty easy to score. It really was,” said sophomore forward Darion Atkins, who tied his career high with 14 points. “I’m not even going to try to fluff it or anything.”
With about nine minutes remaining, freshman guard Taylor Barnette and junior forward Akil Mitchell ran a pick-and-roll that ended with an emphatic dunk by Mitchell, with no defender in the vicinity. Virginia’s next possession ended the same way.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be that wide open, but it was,” Barnette said.
In his first appearance since Nov. 20, Barnette finished with four assists, tying his season high. He was one of 10 Cavaliers to play at least 12 minutes Saturday. Mitchell led UVa with 20 points (and a career-high four steals) in only 16 minutes, and freshman forward Justin Anderson came off the bench to contribute 15 points and nine rebounds — both season highs — and also had two assists, two blocked shots and two steals.
“It was a lot of fun,” Atkins said. “We haven’t had anything like that this year, and it was a lot of fun for the bigs to get their points and for the younger bigs to get their minutes.”
Mitchell agreed. “Who doesn’t like scoring? All players like scoring, and if you don’t, you’re lying. It’s fun to get up and down and get some dunks and hit some shots.”
Junior swingman Joe Harris, Virginia’s leading scorer this season, finished without a field goal for only the second time in his college career. But on a day when he scored a season-low three points, Harris had a career-best six assists.
“Mississippi Valley State defensively wasn’t, obviously, at their best,” Bennett said.
In its Nov. 15 game at Northwestern, MVSU had stayed close well into the second half, so UVa’s coaching staff wasn’t sure what to expect Saturday. “But if we played well, I was hoping to get some of our young guys more experience, and we did,” Bennett said.
After the Cavaliers’ practices Thursday and Friday, Bennett said, he spent extra time working with freshmen Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte, Anderson and Barnette, as well as walk-on point guard Doug Browman, a senior.
“We’re trying to get those guys to really hold them accountable, work with them, because they’re going to be important, certainly for our future but [also] for this season, for stretches coming up here,” Bennett said. “So I like it when I see them get these opportunities. I like it when I see them do the things we’re working on. Again, like I’ve said all along, they’ll show flashes — you saw that from Justin, and certainly we’ve seen that from all the other guys — where they’re real good. It’s just that consistency.”
Mitchell said he enjoyed watching UVa’s freshmen get extended minutes Saturday, “because you know those are the guys that this program will be built on in the future. Just seeing those guys kind of evolve from young players and getting to see them from the beginning when they’re getting clean-up minutes to where they will be in a few years is special for all of us.”
Anderson, a crowd favorite from his first game at JPJ, entered with 11:53 left in the first half Saturday and wasted little time putting up three shots. None went in. So Anderson tried another approach, and this one worked. He drove and scored on a leaner that made it 20-11, then came up with a steal and got the assist on the first of Mitchell’s four dunks.
After his early misses, Anderson said, his coaches “called me over, and they said, `They’re all great looks, but you can get something better with your athleticism.’ So I trusted them instantly, and good things happened.”
In a game filled with highlights for the Cavaliers, an Anderson basket produced the loudest cheer from the crowd of 8,691. It came off his version of a move Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo has perfected — a move Anderson hasn’t always been able to execute in practice, as Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford doesn’t hesitate to remind him.
With about 7:40 to play, the left-handed Anderson drove into the lane, faked a behind-the-back pass, brought the ball back around and then soared for a dunk that made it 59-34.
“The whole bench just looked right at Coach Williford as soon as Justin pulled that off,” Mitchell said, laughing.
Anderson said: “It was a move that just happened, and I got a good end result … Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, just like any other move.”
As impressive as the 6-6 Anderson’s dunking was his work on the boards. His previous high for rebounds in a game was five.
“Coach Williford, he sent me to the glass,” Anderson said. “He said, `Get on the defensive glass. I need more rebounds from you.’ Like I said at the beginning, it’s about trust, and I trust these coaches so much, and I’m so happy to be here, and whatever they need me to do, I’m there to do it for them.”
As expected, Virginia played without senior point guard Jontel Evans, who on Wednesday night reinjured the foot on which he had surgery Oct. 2 to repair a stress fracture.
Evans’ right foot is “a little angry right now,” Bennett said. “We’re going to quiet down and be more conservative, so he can have the best chance, and I think it’s a great chance, to not have this happen again. How long that is, I don’t know.”
After missing five of UVa’s first six games, Evans was steadily returning to form. He made his first start of the season Wednesday night against Tennessee, so the setback was discouraging “for him and for us,” Bennett said.
“He doesn’t go back to square one or anything … It’s irritated, and we’re going to rest it and get him back as soon as possible, but as smart as possible.”
The Cavaliers, off Sunday and Monday, will reconvene for practice Tuesday.
“I’m thankful that we’re 8-2 after starting off 1-2,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to keep defining how we’ve got to play, but again I’m thankful, and I think there were stretches of good basketball, and now the guys really gotta buckle down and hit the books.”