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Jan. 30, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Decibel levels rose and rose inside John Paul Jones Arena on Tuesday night, peaking when the final horn blared. Waves of applause washed over Tony Bennett’s players, who pumped their fists and embraced one another after UVa’s stirring victory over ACC rival NC State.

In a game played at the pace they wanted, the Cavaliers held the 19th-ranked Wolfpack to a single point in the final 4:15 and prevailed 58-55 before an ESPN2 audience and a pumped-up crowd of 10,977 that included a large, loud student section. The victory was UVa’s 12th straight at JPJ.

“The environment gets better and better each home game,” point guard Jontel Evans said. “The fans are coming out and supporting us, and we’re just feeding off their energy, and it’s great for us.”

For the first time in the program’s history, Virginia (15-5, 5-2) has held its first seven ACC opponents to fewer than 60 points apiece. The Wahoos have won four straight since a Jan. 12 loss at Clemson, and their latest victory gave them sole possession of second place in the conference.

“We’re kind of peaking at the right time,” Aki Mitchell said. “We’re playing good ball.”

Mitchell, a 6-8 junior from Charlotte, N.C., posted his seventh double-double of the season, and his 12 rebounds were his career high in an ACC game. Classmate Joe Harris, a 6-6 swingman, led the `Hoos with 22 points, three more than his previous high in an ACC game.

Evans, a senior from Hampton, finished with a game-high seven assists and, in the final seconds, gained a huge measure of redemption at the foul line.

With 1.2 seconds left in the first half, after getting fouled on a desperation 3-pointer, Evans had missed all three free throws, and instead of heading to the locker room down 31-27 or 31-26 or 31-25, the `Hoos trailed 31-24.

So the crowd’s anxiety was audible when Evans, with 26.1 seconds remaining in the second half and UVa holding a one-point lead, went to the line for a one-and-one. What nerves? His first attempt swished through the net, and fans exhaled. His second foul shot hit the rim and rolled in to make it 58-55.

“All point guards should be able to knock down free throws,” Evans said, “and to miss three of them, that was kind of embarrassing, but it happens. Nobody’s perfect, and I hit the two that mattered the most.”

At halftime, Evans had been discouraged, Bennett said later, “but he’s been through too many of these, and we needed him too much, and he just had to play. I thought again he let the game come in the second half.”

State (16-5, 5-3) played without Lorenzo Brown, perhaps the ACC’s top point guard, for the final 30 minutes after the 6-5 junior sprained his ankle in the first half.

The Pack “wasn’t the same without him,” Evans said, and Brown’s absence made it easier for the Cavaliers to defend in the final seconds.

After junior forward C.J. Leslie (20 points, 14 rebounds) missed a contested layup with 7 seconds left, State retained possession. A near-turnover followed, after which Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried called a timeout with 5.2 seconds remaining.

The inbounds pass went to senior swingman Scott Wood, one of the nation’s premier outside shooters. Virginia had expected as much, though, and 6-6 sophomore Paul Jesperson jumped and got a hand on Wood’s 3-point attempt from the right wing. Harris grabbed the rebound and flung the ball down the court as the final horn sounded. And so ended UVa’s first game of the season against a ranked opponent.

“I’m very aware that they lost perhaps the best guard in the league in that game, and that was to our benefit,” said Bennett, the Cavaliers’ fourth-year coach. “But we still had to make plays, and we persevered, and I’m very thankful for the win.”

Freshmen have often played leading roles for the `Hoos this season, whether it be 6-8 Evan Nolte or 6-11 Mike Tobey or 6-6 Justin Anderson, and so it was again Tuesday night.

Foul trouble limited Nolte’s impact, but he hit a crucial 3-pointer to pull UVa to 47-45 with 7:38 left. Anderson’s biggest contributions came at the defensive end. He soared for a spectacular blocked shot with about 6:10 left, robbing T.J. Warren of a basket that would have given State a four-point lead, and locked up Leslie late in the game.

As for Tobey, his array of post moves had national basketball writers gushing on Twitter. He scored with both hands, made 6 of 10 shots from the floor (and his only free throw), and finished with 13 points in 20 minutes off the bench. Tobey’s jump shot with 12:25 remaining gave Virginia its first lead, at 38-37.

“I was impressed,” Mitchell said of Tobey’s performance. “I was really impressed. It’s been a struggle for him defensively all season, but the kid’s got great potential, and tonight I think everybody kind of got a glimpse of that, what he can do offensively. Once we start to integrate him defensively, he’s going to be a good player.”

Bennett has known all along that Tobey has an uncommonly soft touch for a big man. What impressed Virginia’s coach most Tuesday night was No. 10’s work on the boards. Tobey matched his career high with seven rebounds. On defense, he didn’t shut down Richard Howell, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, but Tobey’s length bothered the 6-8, 257-pound senior at times.

“He’s playing a little more rugged,” Bennett said. “Even if you’re not the same size or weight [as an opposing player], it’s still about what you got inside and will you engage and lock up with some of those guys, and he’s being more aggressive that way, and that’s part of a learning process. The weight will come, the strength will come, that will be natural, but I like that he’s engaging a little more, and he’s got some length, and he’s not unathletic, so I think that helps.”

A first-half sequence spoke to Tobey’s development. After a missed 3-point attempt by Jesperson, Tobey and Howell fought for the rebound. Tobey ripped the ball away from Howell and scored on a layup that pulled Virginia to 17-11.

“I was actually a little surprised,” Tobey said with a smile when asked about the play.

He might not have been the only one.

“Would he have done that a couple weeks ago?” Bennett said. “I’m not sure, but he did it tonight, and that’s the main thing.”

In his first appearance since the Clemson game, 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins played six minutes for Virginia. Atkins, who has started 12 games this season, has a stress reaction in his lower right leg. The injury “flared up a little bit up on him” during the game, Bennett told reporters afterward, “so we said that’s enough.”

The game was the Cavaliers’ third in six days, so their slow start was perhaps to be expected.

“We knew the first half we didn’t play particularly well offensively,” Harris said. “But at the same time we didn’t think we played our best defensive half, either. We gave up way too many second-chance points, and they kind of just bullied us around and out-toughed us in the first half, and that was our focal point coming in.”

The second half, of course, was a different matter, and the Cavaliers were rewarded with one of the more memorable victories of Bennett’s tenure.

“Everyone was so hyped,” Tobey said of the locker-room scene. “We were just jumping around, hugging each other. It was good.”

UP NEXT: On Super Bowl Sunday, UVa will take on Georgia Tech (11-8, 1-6) in Atlanta. The teams will meet at 3 p.m. at McCamish Pavilion, the Yellow Jackets’ newly renovated arena that was formerly Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

For Bennett’s players, preparations for that game will begin in earnest Thursday. They have Wednesday off — their first day without a practice or a game since Jan. 20.

“I know one thing: I’m going to sleep all day tomorrow, and I can’t wait,” Mitchell said with a smile Tuesday night.

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