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Feb. 10, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — One of his dunks made it on SportsCenter’s “Top Plays” when he still was in high school, so UVa freshman Justin Anderson had experienced the glare of the national spotlight before Thursday night. Even so, he admitted two days later, this was different.

“It was definitely pretty sweet, because it’s on the college level, the Division I level,” Anderson said after practice Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena, “and that’s something that you always dream of as an athlete, being able to be on SportsCenter. It was a great experience, but you live and you learn and you move on. It’s something I can share later in life.”

Anderson’s performance Thursday night in UVa’s 78-41 demolition of ACC foe Clemson at JPJ included two plays that ESPN deemed among the top 10 in sports that day: a no-look pass over his head to Akil Mitchell for a dunk and a reverse slam off a lob pass from Jontel Evans.

As fun as that victory was for the Cavaliers, Anderson knows he and his teammates must focus on the present, not the past. At 1 p.m. Sunday, Virginia (16-6 overall, 6-3 ACC) meets Maryland (17-6, 5-5) at Comcast Center in College Park, Md.

“It’s a new day,” Anderson said. “We got a new mission ahead of us, and it’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”

Making the challenge tougher for the Wahoos is the absence of 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey, who’s out with mononucleosis and will miss his second straight game. Another UVa big man, 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, has been out with a stress reaction in his right leg and is doubtful for Sunday’s game.

With Tobey unavailable, the 6-6, 226-pound Anderson started at power forward against Clemson and dazzled UVa fans and an ESPN2 audience. He finished with 14 points, 3 steals, 2 assists and 1 blocked shot in his first start since Nov. 17.

“He brings energy on the court, in the locker room, on the bus, everywhere,” Mitchell said of Anderson, who’s from Montross, a town on the state’s Northern Neck. “That kid is non-stop. He’s good for our team.”

For the season, Anderson is averaging 6.5 points and 3 rebounds. He’s second on the team in blocked shots, with 19, and has 48 assists to only 22 turnovers. Those numbers, though, don’t reflect his recent upswing.

In his past six games, Anderson has averaged 10.2 points, 2.7 assists, 2.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1 block. During that stretch, he’s 23 for 40 from the floor, including 5 for 12 from 3-point range, and 10 for 12 from the line.

“I think he’s simplified and taken all the junk out of his game, and it’s shown,” UVa assistant coach Jason Williford said. “He’s bought into what we need him to do offensively, and he’s picking up our defensive principles. The fact that he’s making some shots is big, but he’s unselfish. He can create, he likes to assist and find his teammates

“And we need it. It’s coming at the right time.”

Anderson’s explanation for his improved play?

“I just continue to show up every day in practice and get better in practice and keep building the coaches’ trust in me,” he said Saturday. “That’s what it’s all about. Coming in as a freshman, you gotta prove yourself, you gotta earn your stripes. I feel if I continue to keep working hard, and my teammates continue to work hard, then we can be a great team, and not only next year like a lot of people are projecting. This year I think we can do big things.”

During the first half of the season, Anderson often looked lost on the court, and he was prone to defensive breakdowns and missed assignments.

“There aren’t as many of those now,” Williford said. “He’s been way more sound, and he’s not turning the ball over. He’s making positive plays on the floor, both offensive and defensively. And the fact that he can make some plays above the rim — blocking shots, going to get offensive rebounds, things like that — is a plus.

“I think also, with Atkins out and Tobey out and Justin having to play some inside, he’s got an advantage over some [opponents]. They don’t move as well as he does, and so he’s finding opportunities for himself there.”

Anderson, who made The Washington Post’s All-Metro first team as a senior at Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md., is not likely to receive a warm welcome from Maryland supporters Sunday afternoon.

Those fans haven’t forgotten that Anderson originally committed to play for the Terrapins. After Gary Williams announced that he was retiring as Maryland’s coach, however, Anderson had a change of heart. He committed to UVa in May 2011 and signed his letter of intent about six months later.

The Terps are in their second season under coach Mark Turgeon.

“Because of the new staff, it doesn’t make it awkward at all,” Anderson said. “If I was going to be going against Coach Williams, then that may have been a different story. But it’s another game. A lot of people are bringing in a lot of hype, I guess, to the game, because I committed to the school. But I committed because I wanted to play for a good coach, and a good coach retired. No disrespect to Coach Turgeon, but I didn’t really get to have a relationship with him. I’m here now and I’m happy where I am.”

Anderson has been told he’ll encounter at hostile atmosphere at Comcast Center, “but I have no clue what to expect,” he said Saturday at JPJ. “We’ll see what it’s like when we get out there. Once that ball goes up, I’m really out there in my own little world with my teammates, and we’re out there having our collective effort trying to win.”

Maryland’s frontcourt players include 7-1, 255-pound Alex Len, 6-9, 265-pound Shaquille Cleare, 6-8, 260-pound Charles Mitchell and 6-8, 235-pound James Padgett. The Terps rank second nationally in rebounding margin (plus-11.1). Only Mitchell (9.0) is averaging more than 4.2 boards per game for the `Hoos.

“Absolutely, I gotta help out on the glass more,” Anderson said. “I gotta be a little more active in there. I think we’re just as physical on the glass as [the Terps] are, even with a couple of our guys out. And we have strong guards that can get in there and rebound as well. So I think it’s going to be a collective effort on the glass. If we do that, then I think we’ll find success.”

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