By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Back on its home court for the first time in nearly two weeks, the UVa men’s basketball team treated its fans to an unexpectedly dominant performance Saturday against ACC nemesis Florida State.
This was the same Virginia team that looked so lackluster in losses to Wake Forest and Clemson?
“It was just night and day from the last couple games,” junior big man Akil Mitchell said after the Cavaliers humbled the Seminoles 56-36 at John Paul Jones Arena.
The smothering defense that has become Virginia’s trademark under Tony Bennett was in full evidence. So, too, was the sharpshooting that marked UVa’s Jan. 6 win over North Carolina at JPJ. It made for a lethal combination Saturday.
The Wahoos outshot, outrebounded and outhustled FSU before a boisterous crowd of 12,303. The `Hoos emphatically ended their seven-game losing streak in this series, holding an opponent to fewer than 40 points for the fourth time this season. Their margin of victory was the Cavaliers’ largest ever against Florida State.
“They just played lights out,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said.
The scoring output was the Seminoles’ lowest since their 35-34 win over Memphis State in March 1979. The 36 points were the fewest UVa has allowed in an ACC game since the introduction of the shot clock in 1986-87. The `Noles (10-7, 2-2) were 1 for 15 from beyond the arc Saturday, and All-ACC guard Michael Snaer managed only nine points.
“They didn’t shoot it as well,” Bennett said. “Hopefully our defense had something to do with that. But it’s hard when you’re struggling to get the ball in the basket, whether it’s from 3 or not. I think our guys certainly fed off the energy and the atmosphere. The crowd was great. It seemed like it even went up a notch from the [UNC] game, and that was terrific.”
At halftime, Virginia (12-5, 2-2) led 33-15, and “basically the game was over,” Hamilton said. His team’s defense improved after intermission, “but by then it was so hard to overcome the hole we’d dug for ourselves.”
Led by junior swingman Joe Harris (3 for 4), sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson (2 for 2) and freshman swingman Justin Anderson (2 for 2) the Cavaliers hit 7 of 9 shots from 3-point range in the first half.
“Obviously we shot the ball so well, and that energized us defensively,” Bennett said. “[UVa’s players] were flying around, but they had some soundness for the most part. And I just thought we didn’t give Florida State a lot of easy looks.”
For the first time this season, and perhaps not the last, Virginia played without Darion Atkins, the 6-8 sophomore who leads the team in blocked shots and is second in rebounds. Atkins has a stress reaction in his lower right leg and is sidelined indefinitely.
Evan Nolte, a 6-8 freshman, replaced Atkins in the starting lineup. Nolte grabbed a career-best seven rebounds and helped UVa hold FSU forward Okaro White to eight points. Nolte made only one shot, but it came on a second-half stickback when FSU was trying to mount a late comeback.
“I think he did a great job,” Mitchell said. “They were kind of double-teaming me and really focusing on keeping me off the glass, and that’s where Evan had a lot of opportunities to step in and pick up a few key boards. Even though he didn’t shoot well, he did a lot of the little things that really help us win games like this.”
Harris led the Cavaliers with 17 points, but that was no shock. He came in as the team’s top scorer. More surprising was the play of Jesperson and Anderson, who combined for 16 points.
“Those two guys, they’re X-factors in a way,” said Mitchell, who finished with 13 points and five rebounds. “When they can step up and hit shots, it just puts a lot of pressure on other teams’ defenses to be able to guard Joe, me and Jontel [Evans], and then guys coming off the bench.”
Jesperson’s eight points were his most since a Dec. 19 win over outmanned Morgan State. Anderson, who came in shooting 16.7 percent from beyond the arc, made a career-high two 3-pointers (in three attempts) and also contributed three crowd-pleasing blocks, including one on 7-1, 290-pound Michael Ojo.
“Justin just brings so much energy when he comes in the game,” Evans said. “He gives us a boost, and when he’s playing well, that’s just a bonus. Today he hit two big 3s, and on the defensive end he had a couple big blocks for us that helped us.”
The rejection of Ojo’s dunk attempt started a fast break that ended with an Anderson 3-pointer, off a pass from Evans, whose seven assists matched his high in an ACC game.
“We got some nice things in transition,” Bennett said. “That was big for us.”
Indeed, the Cavaliers finished the game with 13 fast-break points — all in the first half — to none for the `Noles.
“Coach always talks about how, if it’s there, you go ahead and take it,” Harris said. “He has no problem with us pushing it in transition. It’s not like he wants us to just slow it down every possession … I think we were just taking whatever Florida State was giving us.”
The Seminoles gave Anderson open looks from 3-point range, and on this day he capitalized.
“He works on his 3,” Bennett said. “He just has to take the right ones. His feet have to be set, and it’s not a first option right now for his game. If he shows me in practice that he can make them at a high clip, and he does it consistently, OK. But just because he hit two doesn’t mean he has a green light.”
When these teams met at JPJ last season, guard Ian Miller hit a career-best five 3-pointers to help Florida State rally from an 11-point second-half deficit and win 63-60.
“I told the guys today, `Men, we owe `em one. They stole one from us last year at the buzzer,’ ” Evans said reporters. “We practiced hard this week and came into the game with the right focus, and it showed.”
Good shooting can cure a lot of ills. In their losses at Wake and Clemson, the `Hoos were a combined 37 for 103 from the floor, including 8 for 28 from 3-point range.
“When you’re making baskets, it certainly helps,” Bennett said. “You’d like to say, `Well, we gotta play the same whether the ball’s going in or not,’ but I think we fed off that. There was great passion, and that’s a home-court advantage in that setting, you could just feel it.”
The Venable Elementary School choir’s rousing rendition of the national anthem stoked the crowd, and the atmosphere at JPJ remained electric for much of the game.
“I think it’s a big deal,” Harris said of the fans’ support. “Any chance you can play at home with an inexperienced team like we have, just having the momentum on your side and almost that sixth-man mentality, it helps out a lot. The Hoo Crew and our students have been coming out in full force. They give us a huge lift.”
An anxious silence replaced the applause when the game was stopped with 3:59 to play, after FSU forward Terrance Shannon hit his head on Nolte’s hip and fell to the floor. Shannon remained there, not moving, for about 10 minutes before he was placed on a backboard and then wheeled off.
Tests at UVa Medical Center revealed Shannon had a sprained neck “but was doing fine,” according to a tweet from FSU on Saturday night.
As satisfying as the victory was for the Cavaliers, Bennett said, it’s “all kind of sobering, just because of what happened at the end. You see that, you can’t feel as good as you’d like to after a win like that, because you just hope and pray for their young man that that’s not anything threatening or very serious.”
UP NEXT: Virginia plays again at JPJ next Saturday, when Boston College visits for a 1 p.m. game. Before then, however, comes the first of UVa’s two regular-season meetings with Virginia Tech.
In a game that will be shown on the ACC network, the Cavaliers (12-5, 2-2) face the Hokies (11-6, 2-2) at 8 p.m. Thursday in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech edged Wake Forest at Cassell Coliseum on Saturday afternoon. Erick Green, a senior guard at Tech, leads the ACC in scoring (24.6 ppg) and had 22 points against Wake.
Evans, who made the ACC’s all-defensive team in 2011-12, said he hopes to draw the assignment of covering Green.
“That’s a challenge,” Evans said. “He’s the top scorer in our conference, and to come against him, I would love that. He’s a competitor, I’m a competitor, and it would be a good matchup.”
The `Hoos host the Hokies at JPJ on Feb. 12.