By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Much of what he saw from his team Wednesday night displeased UVa’s Tony Bennett, whose tolerance is low for such sloppiness and inattention to detail.
Bennett was the winning coach at John Paul Jones Arena. Imagine how his counterpart felt. Not only did Todd Bozeman see his team lose 75-57, Morgan State’s coach had to watch a young man he knows well, 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, put in a career-high 17 points for Virginia.
Bozeman’s daughter, Brianna, is a second-year student at UVa, where she’s a member of the dance team that performs during games at JPJ. She and Atkins have been dating for several years.
Atkins “did get his career [high] tonight, and my daughter was rooting against me, so it just wasn’t a good night for me,” Todd Bozeman said, laughing.
Bennett, Virginia’s fourth-year coach, cracked no jokes during his postgame remarks. The victory was the Cavaliers’ eighth straight, but Bennett’s frustration was palpable after a game in which his team turned the ball over 16 times, missed 10 free throws and broke down repeatedly on defense. Morgan State’s Dewayne Jackson torched Virginia (9-2) for 32 points to tie the record for an opposing player at JPJ.
“I thought it was poor,” Bennett said of the Wahoos’ performance. “I thought we were undisciplined. I thought we weren’t sound. We didn’t respect the game in stretches. Some guys did some good things, but the game’s meant to be played a certain way for us.
“In the second half [the Bears] shot 52 percent, and I think our guys lost their way a little bit in that game, in my honest opinion.”
When the usually even-keeled Bennett gets upset, it’s “not a pretty sight,” junior forward Akil Mitchell told reporters after the game.
“We got an earful at halftime and an earful after the game. And I kind of expected that,” Mitchell said. “We didn’t play up to our potential defensively. I felt like we were a little rusty offensively and we let our defense slide as a result, and that can’t happen.”
The game was the first in 11 days for the `Hoos, and some rustiness was to be expected from a team coming out of final exams. Still, Bennett’s players knew better than to blame the break for all of their sloppiness against Morgan State (3-5).
“That was a disappointing game for us,” sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson said. “Fortunately we were able to get the win still. But that wasn’t the quality of basketball that we should be playing right now.”
Atkins said: “I’m not gonna lie, we came out and we were pretty rusty tonight. I’m going to say we were kind of unfocused, and we didn’t really take care of the ball, and we just weren’t really dialed-in.”
With 12 minutes to play, UVa led 55-36. But a flurry of missed shots and turnovers followed from the `Hoos, and by the 6:50 mark Morgan State’s deficit was down to nine.
A three-point play by freshman forward Evan Nolte pushed Virginia’s lead back to 12 and started a 12-2 run that quelled the Bears’ upset bid. Still, Bennett wasn’t smiling when the final horn sounded, and his mood hadn’t improved when he sat down for his postgame press conference.
Next up for Virginia is a date with Old Dominion in the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic. The teams meet Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at the Richmond Coliseum. The Monarchs, who have been perennial powers in the Colonial Athletic Association under coach Blaine Taylor, are 1-10, but Bennett remains wary, in part because of how his team played Wednesday night.
“We gotta get a lot better,” Bennett said. “We gotta be sounder. We gotta be tougher … I think we have to sharpen up and be more disciplined and understand what needs to be done.”
Bennett acknowledged, though, that his team had “good stretches” Wednesday night, and several Cavaliers turned in noteworthy efforts. That group included Jesperson, who hit 3 of 4 shots from beyond the arc and finished with a career-high 11 points.
“Paul has good feel,” Bennett said. “He lets the game come to him, and I think when opportunities present themselves, I want him to be assertive in his way. Everybody’s got a different way. I think he had a good pace about himself tonight, and I thought he was assertive in the right way.”
Jesperson’s first trey pulled Virginia to 21-21 with 8:43 left in the first half. His second 3-pointer, about 90 seconds later, put the `Hoos ahead to stay.
“I tried to hunt shots a little bit more and be a little bit more aggressive on the offensive end,” Jesperson said, “and I think that showed a little more tonight.”
Mitchell contributed 15 points and 12 rebounds — his fifth double-double of the season — and also had a career-best seven assists, three more than his previous high.
And then there was the 6-8 Atkins. On a night when foul trouble limited junior swingman Joe Harris, Virginia’s best player, to 21 minutes, Atkins had a career-high three steals to go with his 17 points.
“You went into the game worrying about Joe Harris — because that’s what they do, they go to him — but for those bigs to step up, that was huge,” Bozeman said.
Bozeman’s daughter is a graduate of Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md. Atkins attended nearby Landon School, where as a senior he made The Washington Post’s All-Metro third team.
As a freshman at UVa, Atkins averaged 2.3 points per game and had minimal impact on offense. He’s averaging 9.2 points this season and has been a revelation at the offensive end. Among those following his progress has been his girlfriend’s father.
“He’s getting better and better,” Bozeman said. “His game is evolving. He already had energy and has been an active post guy and defender and rebounder who can run the floor. The way he’s developed his post game offensively has been good. He’s definitely grown.”