By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — UVa big man Akil Mitchell awoke Monday morning and braced himself for bad news. Instead, he got a pleasant surprise.
His right ankle was sore, but “the swelling wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it would be,” Mitchell said that evening at John Paul Jones Arena. “So it’s progressing pretty well.”
In the midst of a stretch in which it plays three ACC basketball games in seven days, Virginia (11-3, 1-0) faces Wake Forest (7-6, 0-1) at 9 o’clock tonight at Lawrence Joel Coliseum. Mitchell will start against Wake. If all goes well, he’ll be in Virginia’s starting lineup Saturday afternoon at Clemson, too.
And that’s fantastic news for the Cavaliers, who feared, after Mitchell severely sprained his ankle in practice last Thursday, that the 6-8 junior from Charlotte might miss all three games.
“That was my probably my biggest concern: whether or not I would be able to play [Sunday night] against Carolina and be able to do the quick turnarounds,” Mitchell said Monday evening. “But the way it’s feeling right now and the way it’s progressing, I think I’ll be fine.”
Virginia hosted North Carolina at 8 p.m. Sunday. In the three days leading up to the Cavaliers’ ACC opener, Mitchell had repeatedly seen head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba for treatment. As game time approached, however, Mitchell still wasn’t sure if he’d play against the Tar Heels.
So, about 90 minutes before tipoff, he decided to test his ankle by playing one-on-one against teammate Anthony Gill in the men’s practice gym at JPJ.
“I got him prepared for the game,” Gill said Monday evening, smiling broadly. “I’m Ethan’s assistant right now.”
Saliba, standing nearby, chimed in: “He is. He is.”
Gill continued: “Akil needed someone to play against before the game, and I was there for him.”
A 6-8 forward who played with Mitchell at Charlotte Christian, Gill is sitting out this season after transferring to UVa from South Carolina. His one-on-one game with Mitchell wasn’t overly intense, Gill said, but “once I saw how well he was moving, I knew he was going to be out there.”
Mitchell started against UNC and, in Virginia’s 61-52 win, finished with seven points, two steals and a game-high 11 rebounds in 31 minutes. Bennett limited his work in practice Monday and Tuesday, but Mitchell was a full participant during the shootaround this afternoon at Joel Coliseum, and he’s ready to help the Wahoos try to end an inexplicable streak against the Deacs.
Since winning at Joel Coliseum on Jan. 30, 2000, Virginia has lost nine in a row to Wake at the 14,665-seat arena.
“Wow,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t know that. I was in third grade in 2000.”
He had learned recently, though, that senior point guard Jontel Evans has never won at Joel as a Cavalier. “That kind of caught me off guard,” Mitchell said.
The victory Sunday night was the Cavaliers’ first over the Tar Heels at JPJ, and Bennett was happy to let his team celebrate its feat. Briefly.
“They battled, enjoyed it, but it can’t linger too long,” Bennett said Sunday night at JPJ. “And with a young team I think you gotta know when you gotta get back to business.”
And this is a young team. Bennett’s rotation includes four freshmen — Evan Nolte, Teven Jones, Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson — and two sophomores, Paul Jesperson and Darion Atkins. Upperclassmen such as Evans, Mitchell and junior swingman Joe Harris understand well what could happen tonight if the team’s full focus isn’t on Wake.
“We gotta lock in,” Mitchell said. “It’s a quick turnaround, so we need to be ready to go. If we lock in and do what we need to do, then hopefully we’ll be able to snap that streak.”