By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Maryland students heckled Justin Anderson in warmups and during most of the game that followed Sunday afternoon, only to fall silent in the final minutes at Comcast Center.
Anderson helped shut `em up. The chiseled 6-6, 226-pound freshman scored a career-best 17 points and pulled down nine rebounds, his high in conference play, as UVa won 80-69 to remain in sole possession of third place in the ACC.
“He played an amazing game today,” Maryland guard Nick Faust said.
Anderson, a graduate of Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md., has shown a flair for the dramatic during his brief college career, and he delivered the coup de grace Sunday in the Cavaliers’ third straight win in the Terrapins’ arena.
With 31.2 seconds left, Anderson scored inside against Alex Len, drawing the 7-1, 255-pound center’s fifth foul in the process, and then completed the three-point play to make it 79-67.
“It was good to see him do well in this setting,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I was hopeful for him coming here. I really wanted it to go well for him.”
As has been well-chronicled, Anderson once planned to spend his college years in College Park. But after Gary Williams retired as Maryland’s coach, Anderson ended up signing with UVa.
The Terps’ fans have not forgotten, or forgiven. Before the game, Maryland students chanted, “We don’t need you!” at Anderson and called him a traitor. During the game, they booed him every time he touched the ball.
If the jeers fazed Anderson, it never showed.
“I tuned it all out,” he said.
Maybe so, but his teammates heard the catcalls, and they marveled at Anderson’s composure. He scored 14 points in the first half to help Virginia (17-6, 7-3) take a 35-29 lead into the locker room, including five straight after Maryland pulled to 28-28.
“[Maryland fans] were razzing him the entire game,” said UVa swingman Joe Harris, who led all scorers with 22 points.
“Even when we were out there just shooting around before the game, it felt like every other word somebody was yelling something at Justin. But he did a really good job of just playing within himself and not trying to go out and prove anything. He had an outstanding game.”
Virginia point guard Jontel Evans said: “He responded great. He didn’t try to do too much. He did what he was capable of doing, and he played a really good game. I’m very proud of him.”
The Wahoos, who put up 78 points Thursday night in a rout of Clemson, impressed on offense again Sunday. They made 11 of 19 attempts from 3-point range and shot 54.2 percent from the floor overall (26 for 48).
Harris, a 6-6 junior who leads the ACC in 3-point accuracy, made 3 of 4 shots from beyond the arc, and 6-8 freshman Evan Nolte was 2 for 5. The hottest `Hoo, however, was 6-6 sophomore Paul Jesperson, who was 4 for 4 from long range.
“It was target practice out there today. Nobody could miss,” said Evans, whose eight assists matched his career high in an ACC game. “The guys get a lot of reps in practice and it showed today. I’m always telling them to be ready when I’m in the game. When I drive into the lane I’m always looking for them to be open.”
Jesperson’s performance was a revelation. Scoreless during a first half in which foul trouble limited him to six minutes, he finished with a career-high 12 points. His four treys also were a career high.
“He gave us a great lift,” said Bennett, who didn’t mince words with Jesperson at halftime.
“I said, `You should have a lot of energy, because you sat out most of the first half,’ ” Bennett recalled at his postgame press conference.
Jesperson said: “I just felt like I really couldn’t get into any rhythm the first half, because I was in foul trouble. When I got in in the second half, it was just like a completely new game. [Associate head coach Ritchie] McKay told me to keep shooting, keep being aggressive, so I just got in there and let `em go.”
As the start of the second half approached, Jesperson turned to teammate Malcolm Brogdon during warmups. “I said, `If I hit this shot right here, I’m going to go 5 for 5 this half,’ ” Jesperson recalled, smiling. “And I missed it, and I said, `All right, I’m just going to go 4 for 4.’ And then they started going down [in the game].”
The 178th game between these longtime rivals included only one lead change: when UVa went up 6-5 on two free throws by Anderson with 17:25 left in the first half.
Virginia took its largest lead on a floater by Harris that made it 51-37 with 12:59 remaining. Maryland closed to 51-42, bringing its fans to their feet, but the `Hoos stayed poised. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Nolte made it 59-46. The Terps (17-7, 5-6) rallied again, cutting their deficit to eight points three times in the next four minutes.
Shaky ballhandling by Virginia, which finished with 16 turnovers, fueled Maryland’s comeback. Still, the `Hoos never fell apart in one of the ACC’s most hostile environments, and that represented a significant step forward for a team dominated by underclassmen.
A week earlier, in Atlanta, Virginia had led Georgia Tech by nine with eight minutes left, only to lose 66-60.
“I felt like a lot of times when we come on the road, we sort of lose our way, lose our focus,” Jesperson said Sunday. “So I felt like this was a big game for us. We needed to come in here and play well and get a W, and we were able to do that today.”
Bennett said: “I think what happened at Georgia Tech maybe proved, or at least showed us, OK, you can’t take your foot off the gas. You really need to be engaged and finish games, because usually on the road, the other team’s going to make some shots, and they’re going to do some things and you’re going to have to withstand a run.”
The Terps’ starters Sunday included the 7-1 Len, 6-8, James Padgett and 6-8 Jake Layman. The Cavaliers, who again played without 6-11 center Mike Tobey (mononucleosis), started only one player taller than 6-6 — 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell — yet still became the first team to outrebound the Terps this season, 34-29.
“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” said Mitchell, who finished with 13 points and four boards. “It’s just a testament to the whole team coming back and rebounding and doing this as a team.”
Six players grabbed at least three rebounds apiece for the `Hoos, led by Anderson. Evans, who stands 5-11, matched his season high with five boards.
“I thought Virginia was great from start to finish,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I thought it was their day. They had a lot to do with making it their day.”
Even early foul trouble didn’t stop the Cavaliers. With 9:57 left in the first half, Mitchell, the team’s leading rebounder, went to the bench with his second personal. In came 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, a former starter who had missed five of Virginia’s previous six games with a stress reaction in his lower right leg. (He played only six minutes in the other game.)
Atkins’ numbers weren’t impressive Sunday — no points, one turnover and three rebounds in seven minutes — but he helped keep UVa from getting overwhelmed inside with Mitchell on the bench.
“You don’t have him for that seven minutes, we’re struggling,” Bennett said, “so I’m thankful that he played, and now we’ll see how he responds with a quick turnaround.”
Mitchell said: “Just the fact that he can even be on the floor right now, with his leg the way it is, is big for us, just because he knows the system, and he’s got the size to come in and rebound and defend.”
Atkins, Virginia’s leading shot-blocker this season, said he knew “coming in that I wasn’t going to produce the way I really wanted to, because I’m just getting back in the swing of things. But I knew they were valuable minutes, and I knew that Coach Bennett wanted me to get in there so I could give the guys a break.”
The near-capacity crowd of 16,895 at Comcast Center included former UVa football player Ian-Yates Cunningham, now a player personnel assistant for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. From his front-row seat, Cunningham saw the `Hoos extend their winning streak in this series to four games.
UVa and Maryland will meet again March 10, at John Paul Jones Arena, in the regular-season finale for both teams.
UP NEXT: Virginia returns home for a Tuesday night clash with arch-rival Virginia Tech (11-12, 2-8) at JPJ. ESPNU will televise the 7 p.m. game.
The Hokies, who in senior guard Erick Green have the nation’s leading scorer, have lost six straight since edging Wake Forest 66-65 on Jan. 19. Tech’s skid began with a Jan. 24 loss to Virginia at Cassell Coliseum. Led by Nolte (5 for 9), the Cavaliers made 11 of 23 attempts from 3-point range in their 74-58 win in Blacksburg.
UVa has won four of its past five meetings with Tech and leads the series 83-53.