Dec. 29, 2012

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Joe Harris, traveling home to Chelan, Wash., spent much of last Sunday in airports or on airplanes. The 6-6 junior had plenty of time to reflect on the basketball game UVa had played in Richmond the night before but, for the most part, chose not to do so.

“That was a really bad loss,” Harris said Friday at John Paul Jones Arena. “I just decided to shut that one out of my mind and move forward.”

Home in Charlotte, N.C., Harris’ classmate Akil Mitchell couldn’t have forgotten Virginia’s 63-61 loss to Old Dominion had he wanted to.

“Every time I turned on the TV there was basketball playing,” Mitchell recalled Friday, “and I just felt like I wanted to get back out there so we could redeem ourselves.”

The Cavaliers’ first chance to do so comes Sunday. At 1 p.m., in its non-conference finale, UVa (9-3) hosts Wofford (6-6) at JPJ.

“I’m excited to play again,” said Harris, Virginia’s leading scorer. “We’re better than what we showed against ODU, and we want to show that.”

The Terriers, members of the Southern Conference, are coming off a 56-55 win over Xavier in Cincinnati. In late November, Wofford lost on the road by six points to Richmond, which humbled ODU by 27 in Norfolk two weeks later.

“They’re a very good team that’s playing well that runs multiple screens and can really shoot,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of the Terriers. “They’re a hard team to guard, so it will test us. They’re definitely a capable team.”

The Wahoos are likely to be without point guard Jontel Evans again Sunday, Bennett said. The 5-11 senior hasn’t played since Dec. 5, when he reinjured the foot on which he had surgery Oct. 2.

Evans’ absence has been felt at both ends of the court. He’s the Cavaliers’ best on-the-ball defender and their top penetrator. Without Evans, Virginia’s margin for error is considerably thinner, as was apparent last weekend at the Richmond Coliseum. Even so, Bennett expects focus and toughness from his players, and both were lacking against ODU.

After the `Hoos built a 10-point lead early in the second half, the Monarchs stormed back to tie the game and then surged ahead. The effort UVa put forth in a late comeback — a rally led by Harris and freshman forward Evan Nolte — had been conspicuously absent for most of the previous 10 minutes.

“Too many times we had either a poor turnover, bad decision offensively or a breakdown on defense,” Bennett said. “Mistakes are part of the game, you’re going to make them, but you can’t have one on offense and then one on defense on kind of every other possession. When you’ve got that lead, you’ve got to try to be better.”

Mitchell said: “I think we kind of started to coast a little bit, and we can’t do that. We’re not a good enough team to do that.”

The Monarchs had entered the game with a 1-10 record, but they “started believing in themselves, and they were so physical,” Bennett said. “I thought they were more aggressive and more physical. They outplayed us in a number of areas. They got their confidence, they got going, and they got to the rim or in the lane when they needed to at important times.”

After scattering for a short holiday break, Virginia’s players reconvened for practice Thursday at JPJ. Bennett pushed them hard. The same was true Friday. In neither practice, however, were the `Hoos especially sharp.

“We gotta come with a lot more focus,” Harris said Friday. “We haven’t really practiced well for a while now. Even before the [Dec. 19] Morgan State game. We haven’t had a good practice since then, so we got a long ways to go.”

Bennett has made no attempt to hide his displeasure about what he’s seen from his team. Troubling signs emerged before Virginia’s trip to Richmond for the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic, and they continue to concern the coaching staff.

“I feel like the last two days in practice the coaches have really said a lot,” said Mitchell, a 6-8 junior who leads UVa in rebounding and is second in scoring.

“We’ve just got to find it in ourselves for that to bother us enough to where we come back out and do it right. For whatever reason, we don’t have the competitive drive that we need to right now. It’s frustrating the coaches, it’s frustrating me, and it’s not going to get the job done.”

For Bennett, basketball isn’t the only thing on his schedule this week. His parents are in town, as are his two sisters, his brother-in-law and several nieces and nephews.

“So we got a nice crew,” Bennett said.

His sister Kathi is head coach of the Northern Illinois women’s basketball team, which is competing this weekend in the Cavalier Classic tournament at JPJ. Bennett was able to watch his sister run her team’s practice Thursday night, which was “really nice to see,” he said.

The loss to ODU didn’t spoil his Christmas. Still, the defeat lingered with Bennett, whose team had its eight-game winning streak stopped.

“Yeah, I probably thought about it a little more than had we won, but that’s the reality of sports,” Bennett said. “Losses seem to stay with you a little longer than wins do, that’s for sure.”

Bigger challenges await the Cavaliers. After taking on Wofford, Virginia will have a week to prepare for its ACC opener. North Carolina visits JPJ for an 8 p.m. game on Jan. 6. Then come road games against Wake Forest and Clemson.

“It’s important for us to find our way right now,” Mitchell said, “so that we’re ready to go and we’re playing good basketball [when ACC games begin].”

Like Harris, Mitchell has been waiting impatiently for an opportunity to prove the ODU loss was an aberration.

“Gotta get a chance to bounce back against another team,” Mitchell said. “We can beat each other up in practice all day, but we’re really looking forward to getting back out there and getting on the right track.”

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