Jan. 25, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

BLACKSBURG — Time and again Thursday night, Virginia Tech lost track of UVa forward Evan Nolte at Cassell Coliseum. Time and again the 6-8 freshman punished the Hokies for their defensive lapses.

Nolte’s first start in an ACC game came last Saturday, against Florida State. He grabbed a season-high seven rebounds but made only 1 of 6 shots from the floor in the Cavaliers’ 56-36 victory at John Paul Jones Arena. He’s a much better shooter than that, as the Hokies can attest after witnessing Nolte’s marksmanship at Cassell Coliseum.

With sophomore forward Darion Atkins still sidelined with a stress reaction in his leg, Nolte started again Thursday night. He wasn’t as spectacular as Tech guard Erick Green — not many college players are — but Nolte quieted the students who had heckled him early in the game.

“I didn’t hear it at the end,” Nolte said with a grin after the Wahoos whipped the Hokies 74-58 before a crowd of 7,222. Virginia has won three straight in Blacksburg for the first time in more than 60 years.

Nolte finished with 18 points and four steals — both career highs — and added two rebounds, two blocked shots and two assists. His five 3-pointers also were his most as a Cavalier.

“I’m going to put it out there: Evan might be a better shooter than Joe Harris,” said Virginia point guard Jontel Evans, a huge smile on his face. “I don’t know, man. That guy is on fire, and when he and Joe Harris are on fire together, we’re a very, very, very tough team to beat. He stretches the floor out. He’s 6-8. He can go in the post and he can shoot it on the perimeter. He’s a tough matchup, and I feel like he emerged tonight in this conference.”

Evans, a senior, had six assists and no turnovers for the Cavaliers (13-5, 3-2), and the team’s juniors also made major contributions, the 6-6 Harris with 17 points (and stellar defense on Tech’s Jarell Eddie) and 6-8 Akil Mitchell with eight points and eight rebounds. From UVa’s perspective, however, the story of this game was the play of Nolte and his fellow freshmen.

Off the bench, 6-6 swingman Justin Anderson had 11 points, a career-high six assists and three steals in 24 minutes and 6-11 center Mike Tobey scored 10 points, on 5-for-5 shooting, and pulled down three rebounds in 15 minutes. The other freshman who played for Virginia, point guard Teven Jones, made a 3-pointer.

In a 19-0 first-half run that stunned the Hokies, who had built a 19-15 lead, freshmen scored 13 points for the `Hoos.

“They were composed,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “They looked comfortable out there. I liked what I saw from all of them.”

In his brief college career, Nolte has shown a knack for producing in big moments. He played a leading role in Virginia’s Nov. 28 win at Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and he hit three treys in a Jan. 6 win over North Carolina at JPJ. Neither performance, though, was as impressive as his tour de force against the Hokies (11-7, 2-3).

“He’s a smart player, and he showed that,” Bennett said. “He didn’t shoot it well last game [against Florida State], but he did some other things. Today, he was in rhythm and his shot was dialed in, and I thought all the freshmen looked fairly composed out there. They’ll be in a lot of tough environments, and they’ll have to keep doing that for us, because they’re going to play because of our numbers.”

Green, a 6-4 senior from Winchester, entered as the nation’s leading scorer, and he was all but unstoppable, hitting a variety of shots and scoring a career-high 35 points. That’s the most a Bennett-coached team at UVa has allowed.

“I look at Green’s points,” Bennett said, scanning the box score, “and I thought for the most part we made him earn them. But I didn’t realize he had that many. He’s a talent. He’s hard to guard, but you just gotta make him earn and do a better job on the other guys. I was concerned about Eddie, and he was a little cold tonight.”

Green was the only Hokie to score in double figures. Eddie finished with nine points but made only 2 of 11 shots from the floor, in part because of Harris’ rugged defense.

When he arrived at UVa, Harris wasn’t much of a defender, Bennett recalled, but he’s “improved year by year, and it’s good to see, and he’s become much more sound and solid, and he did a good job [Thursday night]. We even put him for a stretch on Green. But he did a good job, because I thought Eddie was really a key in this. He’s hurt us before, and I thought Joe was in a stance, and for the most part he made Eddie shoot contested shots. He didn’t buy the pump fakes, and our guys were aggressive with their traps. I liked what Joe did. He was complete.”

Harris tied his season high with four 3-pointers. His biggest trey came with about nine minutes left in the first half, after the Hokies had scored on three straight possessions to take a 17-10 lead. Moments earlier, unhappy with his team’s defensive breakdowns, Bennett had called a timeout, during which associate head coach Ritchie McKay approached Harris.

“Coach McKay came over to me and he just like, `Settle down,’ ” Harris said. “And I looked at him and said, `It’s a long game. We got nothing to worry about.’ ”

Sure enough, Harris came out of the timeout and, with Eddie in his face, drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing. That started a 24-2 run for the `Hoos, who went ahead for good on another Harris trey, this one from the right corner, where Anderson spotted him in transition.

On a night when the Hokies totaled only six assists, the Cavaliers had 21.

“Things were just clicking for us offensively,” Harris said. “I thought we did a good job of always finding the extra guy and always making the extra pass and finding the open guy for a great shot.”

The Hokies’ defense in their first season under James Johnson has often been wretched, and UVa capitalized on its opportunities Thursday night. Virginia’s 23 attempts from 3-point range were a season high, but “they were for the most part open,” Bennett said.

The `Hoos, who came in averaging 62.1 points, hit a season-high 11 treys and shot 51 percent from the floor overall.

“It always looks good when that ball’s going through the basket,” Bennett said.

Until Bennett’s second team at UVa broke through on Dec. 15, 2010, the Cavaliers hadn’t won at Cassell since Jan. 15, 2006. Now Harris and Mitchell will have an opportunity next season to secure a fourth straight win in Blacksburg.

“To end your career without losing here, that’s the way we want it to be,” Harris said, “and that’s the way we plan it to be.”

Bennett’s seniors, Evans and Doug Browman, won’t play at Cassell again, so they especially savored the Cavaliers’ latest win in this series.

“I came in here,” Evans said in the locker room, “and thanked all my teammates for making this one special. It was my last time here, and we came out with a W.”

UP NEXT: In the first of two straight ACC games at John Paul Jones Arena, UVa (13-5, 3-2) hosts Boston College (9-9, 1-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s a quick turnaround,” said Bennett, who noted that BC hasn’t played since a 64-59 loss Tuesday night at Maryland.

Boston College’s lone conference victory came against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The Eagles’ average margin of defeat in their ACC losses is 3.5 points.

“They’ve been in every game,” Bennett said, “they really have been right there with everyone they’ve played. They shoot the 3, they’re quick, they’ll be a great challenge, and they play four guards, so we’ll have to be ready. It’s not like we change who we are, but I hope our guys will go home and have the great passion and energy they had the last couple of games.”

In the teams’ only meeting last season, UVa thumped BC 66-49 at JPJ.

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