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Jan. 7, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The final minute included six fouls and 13 free throws, so the celebration was delayed Sunday night. But once Akil Mitchell corralled an offensive rebound off a missed free throw with 75 seconds remaining, there was little doubt how this ACC men’s basketball game would end: with UVa ahead of North Carolina at John Paul Jones Arena.

And that was a first for Virginia, which since JPJ opened for the 2006-07 season had defeated each of its ACC counterparts there at least once — except UNC.

“I think we’re going to make history on Sunday,” Jontel Evans told a reporter late last week, and the senior point guard’s prediction came true.

The Cavaliers, who trailed by eight points three minutes in the second half, stunned the Tar Heels with a 15-2 run and pulled away to win 61-52 before a boisterous crowd of 12,117.

“We made history,” Evans said with a smile Sunday night.

For the Wahoos (11-3, 1-0), their long list of heroes started with Mitchell, a 6-8 junior who gritted his way through the pain of a high-ankle sprain. It also included junior swingman Joe Harris (team-high 19 points), freshman forward Evan Nolte (nine points) and sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson (seven points, all in the second half). And then there was Evans, who because of a foot injury had played in only four games this season — for a total of 60 minutes — before Sunday night.

“He’s the leader of our team, our point guard,” Harris said. “He’s the spirit of our defense, and I feel like whenever you have him out there, he just makes good things happen on both ends.”

With 17:15 left in the opening half, Evans checked in to a warm ovation from the largest crowd to see a game at JPJ this season. It was his first appearance since Dec. 5, and his impact was profound Sunday night. Evans finished with eight points and a game-high six assists in 21 minutes.

“I thought in the second half that Jontel was really big for them,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We couldn’t stop him from getting to the basket.”

The Tar Heels (10-4, 0-1) came in leading the ACC in scoring, at 83.6 points per game, but UVa all but shut down their vaunted fast break. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, shot a blistering 52 percent from the floor in the second half against a defense that broke down repeatedly. UVa finished with five fast-break points, to four for UNC.

“We didn’t do the things that we wanted to do,” Williams said. “Give Virginia credit. They did the things that they wanted to do, and they dominated both ends of the court in the second half.”

Mitchell contributed seven points, two steals and a game-high 11 rebounds, a remarkable performance for a player who, when he awoke Sunday, did not expect to play that night.

Early in practice Thursday afternoon, Mitchell had severely sprained his right ankle after coming down on a teammate’s foot. Mitchell lay writhing on the court in pain for several minutes, and the initial prognosis from head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba was not encouraging.

“I did not think he was going to play [against UNC],” said Tony Bennett, UVa’s fourth-year coach. “He sprained it pretty bad, and it was swollen.”

Mitchell spent hours getting treatment, but was not able to practice Friday or Saturday. He tested his ankle during the Cavaliers’ shootaround Sunday, however, and decided to try to play with his ankle heavily taped.

“It was literally a miracle, because Ethan says I’m about a week ahead of schedule,” Mitchell said. “It’s a pretty bad high-ankle sprain … I couldn’t tell you how in the world I’m able to walk on it, but I’m doing it.”

Mitchell ended up logging 31 minutes Sunday night. Only Harris (36) played more for the `Hoos.

“Once you get in the game, you [forget about] it,” Mitchell said. “You don’t think about your ankle, you don’t think about what hurts. You just kind of play through it.”

Bennett said: “He went on a lot of adrenaline. So I really respect what he did for us with that ankle.”

The officiating in this game was, shall we say, interesting. UNC was not called for its first personal until the 4:44 mark of the first half, by which time Virginia had seven fouls. That whistle prompted mock cheers from the crowd. By game’s end, however, Carolina had 18 fouls, to 14 for Virginia.

UVa made only 9 of 18 free throws, but the Tar Heels (9 for 17) were not much better from the line, and they were much worse overall.

Junior swingman Reggie Bullock, who led all scorers with 22 points, was the exception for Carolina, hitting 7 of 9 shots from the floor. Bullock’s teammates, however, shot a combined 12 for 42 (28.6 percent) against a defense that, for the game’s final 16 minutes, smothered the Heels.

“We were really trying to be vigilant on transition defense and having them play against a set defense,” Bennett said.

The second half began inauspiciously for the `Hoos. UNC, which led 25-24 at the break, scored on five straight possessions to take a 36-28 lead. Harris’ 3-pointer pulled Virginia to 36-31, but on their next possession the Heels got the ball inside to their best post player, James Michael McAdoo, and the 6-9, 230-pound sophomore turned and went up for what appeared to be an uncontested dunk.

But Darion Atkins didn’t quit on the play. The 6-8, 225-pound sophomore swooped in from behind and blocked McAdoo’s shot, starting a UVa fast break that ended with a Mitchell stickback.

“We were out of position, but Darion just made the great play,” Bennett said. “That definitely ignited us, and then I thought our defense took hold, and then [the Heels] had to earn most of what they got the rest of the night.”

The block, Harris said, “got the crowd into it and got us some momentum.”

Stastically, Atkins did not have one of his better games: two points, three rebounds and two blocks. But he recognizes the importance of his play on McAdoo.

“I feel like it boosted our morale and our energy, and I feel like it kept us going throughout the game,” Atkins said.

UVa fans had much to cheer in the second half. Among the highlights:

* With 14:04 remaining, Jesperson finally broke through, burying a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer to make it 36-36. But he’s shown that he can connect from long range. More noteworthy was the 6-6 Jesperson’s second field goal.

From the left wing, he drove into the lane and, in midair, switched the ball from his right to his left hand and banked in a layup that made it 55-50 with 1:55 left.

“That was a big basket for us,” Bennett said.

* Midway through the second half, Evans passed to Nolte on a fast break. Directly in front of Bennett, the 6-8 freshman pulled up and, without hesitating, launched an NBA-length 3-point attempt.

Nolte’s bomb found its mark, stretching Virginia’s lead to 43-38.

“I think I was looking down, luckily [for Nolte],” Bennett said, smiling. “I kind of looked down and I heard the crowd go, `Whoa!’ and then, boom, he shot it. It was deep. Just make it, right?

Nolte said: “I didn’t really know where I was on the court at first. [But] I could tell I was far away, and right after I shot it, the crowd [and] everyone was like, `Ooh!’ I just tried to shoot it with confidence, and it happened to go in.”

UNC answered at the other end, but then Nolte hit another trey, again on a pass from Evans, to make it 46-40 with 8:49 left.

Evans “got us some great looks,” Bennett said, “and that makes all the difference in the world.”

So does having shooters such as Nolte, who’s now 18 for 38 (47.3 percent) from beyond the arc.

“The 3s that he hit were huge,” Harris said. “He’s only a freshman, and for him to be stepping up and hitting big shots like that, it’s great for his confidence, and it just kind of shows the type of player he is. He’s capable of hitting big shots in big games.”

In the ACC, few games are bigger than those in which North Carolina is the opponent. So perhaps it’s not shocking that Mitchell, who’s from Charlotte, N.C., found a way to play Sunday night.

“That added a little bit, for sure,” he said. “It’s a big game for this program, for me. All my friends are Carolina fans, and I’ve been hearing it all week. It’s a big deal.”

The same was true for Evans. “With me being a senior,” he said, “this is my last time competing against them in this gym, so it’s very special to me to get a W.”

UP NEXT: At 9 p.m. Wednesday, Virginia meets Wake Forest (7-6, 0-1) in Winston-Salem, N.C. The ‘Hoos have lost nine straight to the Demon Deacons at Lawrence Joel Coliseum since winning there Jan. 30, 2000.

Wake opened ACC play Saturday afternoon with an 80-62 loss to No. 1 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

This will be the only regular-season game between the Cavaliers and the Demon Deacons in 2012-13. In their lone 2011-12 encounter, UVa humbled Wake 68-44 at JPJ.

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