By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — In a game it appeared to have under control with eight minutes to play, the UVa men’s basketall team abruptly unraveled Sunday afternoon at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion.
The result was a 66-60 loss that ended the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak and dropped them into a tie for third (with North Carolina) in the ACC standings. The Yellow Jackets — the worst shooting team in the league — scored 18 of the game’s final 21 points, a stunning reversal for a UVa team that led 37-28 at halftime and 57-48 at the 8:00 mark.
“It’s really disappointing,” Virginia junior Joe Harris said, “because we’ve been playing well, we’ve been having good practices, and you’re just hoping that it’ll translate on the road in a game I thought we all expected to win.
The Jackets (12-8, 2-6) came up with every loose ball and nearly every long rebound in the second half, it seemed, much to Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s dismay.
“Every time that they got a loose ball or a 50/50 ball, it seemed like they really capitalized, whether it was a quick putback or a 3,” Bennett said. “On some of them, I don’t know if our guys thought we had [the ball] and then quit on the play, but that hurt us.”
For the fourth time in the past five games, UVa played without sophomore big man Darion Atkins, who has a stress reaction in his right leg. Atkins is a superb defender and shot-blocker, and he was missed against a Georgia Tech frontcourt that included Robert Carter Jr. (14 points) and Kammeon Holsey (12 points, three offensive boards).
The 66 points are the most Virginia (15-6, 5-3) has allowed in an ACC game this season. Georgia Tech (12-8, 2-6) hit 50 percent of its field-goal attempts in the second half and 47.8 percent overall.
The Jackets scored all 11 of their second-chance points after intermission. The Wahoos, meanwhile, made only one field goal in the final nine minutes, a layup by senior point guard Jontel Evans that pulled them to 63-60 with 35 seconds left. Virginia’s field-goal percentage, a torrid 51.9 at halftime, had dipped to 40 by game’s end.
“We can’t afford to have lapses — whether it’s not picking up loose balls, or missing free throws, or a careless turnover — [and] overcome that,” Bennett said. “Especially on the road. You gotta be sound, and we keep talking about sustaining your effort throughout the whole possession, throughout the game.”
UVa’s top upperclassmen – Harris, Evans and 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell – had up-and-down games.
Harris scored a team-high 18 points and added six rebounds and four assists, but he also had a career-high six turnovers. Evans had as many turnovers (four) as assists (four). Mitchell finished with 13 points and game-high 12 rebounds — his eighth double-double of the season — but in the final 4:20 he had two shots blocked near the rim and missed three other shots around the basket.
The Jackets’ big men “did a good job” defensively, Mitchell said. “I just gotta work on finishing.”
So does his team. Twice this season UVa has blown a sizeable second-half lead and lost. Against Old Dominion on Dec. 22, Virginia led by 10 with 14:20 left and ended up losing 63-61.
“We just gotta finish games,” Mitchell said. “I feel like when we’ve got `em on the ropes, we just gotta finish games.”
UVa freshman Justin Anderson came off the bench to contribute 10 points, four assists and three rebounds in 25 minutes. But the other freshmen in Virignia’s rotation — 6-8 Evan Nolte and 6-11 Mike Tobey — combined for only seven points and six rebounds.
“They didn’t look as sharp as they have been,” Bennett said. “Hopefully those guys will learn from that and grow from it. But they weren’t the way they’ve been the last few games.”
Foul trouble limited Tobey to nine minutes, and Nolte made only 2 of 9 shots from the floor. Eight of those attempts were from beyond the 3-point arc.
“I didn’t shoot it with as much confidence as I wanted to in the first half, and down the stretch I feel like I was a little hesitant,” said Nolte, who’s from nearby Milton, Ga., and had a large cheering section in the stands.
“It’s definitely one of the games I want to have back.”
Virginia got little from another starter, Paul Jesperson. In his 31 minutes, the 6-6 sophomore took only three shots. He finished with three points, two steals, one rebound and one assist.
During the Cavaliers’ first-half surge, Jesperson “made a couple nice plays,” Bennett said, “but there wasn’t a lot there in the second half. It wasn’t probably one of his better performances.”
Seldom-used freshman guard Taylor Barnette entered the game in the final minute of the first half, after Harris picked up his second foul, and promptly buried a 3-pointer. After Holsey scored on a jump-hook, Evans drove for a layup that sent the `Hoos into the break with a nine-point lead.
Georgia Tech, unfazed, scored the first six points of the second half. Virginia steadied itself and slowly pulled away again. With 12:40 left, the Cavaliers’ lead was seven, but again the Jackets rallied.
It was a three-point game with 10 minutes to play. But Nolte’s second trey pushed Virginia’s lead to 54-48, and back-to-back trips to the line by Anderson produced three more points. The Jackets, on the brink of getting blown out, instead staged one of the most memorable comebacks of their two seasons under Brian Gregory.
The rally began with 7:45 left, when Carter missed a 3-pointer from the right corner. Holsey grabbed the rebound and passed to guard Mfon Udofia, who from the left corner drilled a 3-pointer to make it 57-51.
“We value every possession so much,” Harris said, “and when you give it up like that and aren’t tough enough to come up with the ball, the momentum swings and they make easy baskets.”
Udofia’s trey, his third of the game, awoke the Jackets and their fans.By the time UVa scored again, on a free throw by Harris with 1:04 to play, the Jackets had the lead for good, and they didn’t relinquish it. Georgia Tech ended a five-game losing streak in this series.
“I have an unbelievable amount of respect for Tony and that program,” Gregory said, “and that’s what it is. He has a great program … So for me, this win really has an impact. They’ve been playing extremely well — probably the best out of anybody in this league outside of Miami. For us to tough out that win was a good sign.”
The Cavaliers weren’t as pleased with their response. The Jackets were “the tougher team,” Anderson said.
“I think we have to continue to be tough, and we have to continue to bring toughness to each game, because every team’s gonna be physical with us from here on out.”
Opponents are aware that UVa has knocked off Wisconsin, North Carolina and N.C. State, among other teams.
“Right now that’s the big thing about winning big-time games: You’re going to have a target on your back,” Anderson said. “And that’s one thing I’ve learned, even as a freshman, coming from high school at a national program, that when you start winning big games, you’re going to get everybody’s best, and no matter what their record, you gotta continue to play your system and play it hard. I think we got away from that a little bit in the second half.”
The UVa traveling party attended the Atlanta Hawks-Chicago Bulls game Saturday night at Philips Arena. The crowd at McCamish Pavilion the next afternoon included two Atlanta Hawks who have strong ties to UVa and/or Bennett.
“”I would have liked to have put Mike Scott and Devin Harris in that game,” Bennett said, smiling. “That might have solved the problem, I think, in the second half.”
Scott, of course, was an All-ACC performer for Virginia last season, and Harris played at Wisconsin when Bennett was an assistant coach there.
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers will have an opportunity Thursday night to avenge one of their ACC defeats. At 7 o’clock, UVa hosts Clemson at John Paul Jones Arena. ESPN2 will televise the game.
When the teams met Jan. 12 at Littlejohn Coliseum, the Tigers won 59-44. Virginia has won 12 straight at JPJ since losing there to Delaware in an NIT Season Tipoff game Nov. 13.