By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The teams’ paths could cross again next month at the ACC men’s basketball tournament in Greensboro, N.C., but there’s no guarantee that will happen. Which means UVa senior Jontel Evans may well face his school’s biggest rival for the final time Tuesday night.
Virginia has won four of its past five games with Virginia Tech, including the Jan. 24 meeting in Blacksburg. Another victory over the Hokies “would mean everything,” Evans said Monday afternoon after practice at John Paul Jones Arena.
“They’re our in-state rival. We always love to beat them. They love to beat us. And to sweep them this year, for my senior year, that would be great.”
When the teams met at Cassell Coliseum last month, Virginia Tech guard Erick Green, scored 35 points — the most by an ACC player this season — but UVa countered with a balanced attack and won 74-58. Four players scored in double figures for the Cavaliers, who made a season-high 11 3-pointers.
The rematch, which ESPNU will broadcast, starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday at JPJ. The Hokies (11-12, 2-8) are tied for last place in the ACC and limp into the game, having dropped six straight since edging Wake Forest on Jan. 19.
The Wahoos, by contrast, are the ACC’s third-place team and have won six of their past seven games. Still, Evans said, the `Hoos can’t afford to take the Hokies lightly.
“We have to learn from that Georgia Tech game, and Clemson and Wake Forest,” Evans said, referring to three of UVa’s losses, “that everybody’s good in this conference, and we have to be focused on being mentally prepared.”
The 5-11 Evans, a member of the ACC’s all-defensive team last season, covered the 6-4 Green, the nation’s leading scorer, during much of the game in Blacksburg. His effort against Green (25.3 ppg), Evans said, “was decent, but it could have been better. There were a couple times when my hands were down and he got me shifted a little bit. I’m just going to be try to be more prepared this time.”
He’s realistic about the challenge. “Erick Green’s going to try to get his,” Evans said. “You just have to make him hit tough shots, which he does all the time. Just be there on the catch and get your hands up and try to be physical on him.”
Green, a senior from Winchester, has attempted 397 field goals this season — 142 more than Joe Harris, Virginia’s leading scorer. Harris (15.9 ppg) is the ACC’s most accurate 3-pointer shooter (47 percent) and ranks seventh in the league in overall field-goal percentage (48.6).
Harris, a 6-6 junior, is coming off a sterling performance. Sunday afternoon in College Park, he hit 7 of 8 shots from the floor, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, and 5 of 6 from the line to help UVa beat Maryland 80-69 at Comcast Center.
“He was fantastic,” Maryland’s Mark Turgeon said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “What a great player … He’s probably one of the smartest players that I’ve ever coached against and definitely one of the smartest players we’ve ever coached against this year and played against.”
For the first time in Tony Bennett’s seven seasons as a head coach — he spent the first three at Washington State — his team has scored at least 78 points in back-to-back conference games. (Virginia thrashed Clemson 78-41 at JPJ last week.) Harris isn’t the Cavaliers’ only threat, as Virginia Tech coach James Johnson knows well.
The `Hoos have a “lot of different guys that make plays, that can put the ball in the hole at given times,” Johnson said Monday. “They play together as a team. They share the basketball.”
Led by Harris (54 for 115), five players have hit at least 10 treys for Virginia this season. The others are freshman forward Evan Nolte (35 for 82), sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson (24 for 64), freshman guard Taylor Barnette (11 for 26) and freshman swingman Justin Anderson (10 for 39), who was named the ACC’s rookie of the week Monday.
Jesperson made four of the Cavaliers’ 11 treys against Maryland, a career high for him. Nolte hit a career-best five 3-pointers against the Hokies last month.
“We’d love to see that again tomorrow,” Harris said with a smile Monday afternoon.
In the frontcourt, 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell doesn’t attempt many 3-pointers, but he’s shooting a team-high 54.4 percent from the floor.
“I would definitely say this is the best shooting team that I’ve played on,” Harris said Monday.
Most of UVa’s players take extra shots before and after practice each day, “which in turn, I think, helps us have more confidence games,” Harris said. “And then offensively I think we’ve just done a good job in being unselfish and hitting guys for great shots.”
Bennett is happy, of course, to see his players’ shots drop. But defense remains his primary focus, especially with Green coming to town, and he wasn’t pleased with his team’s lapses in College Park. The 69 points are the most Virginia has allowed this season.
“That wasn’t a particularly great defensive effort, I’ll be honest with you, especially down the stretch, but that’s OK,” Bennett said Sunday. “We had enough to get away with it, but we’ve got to tighten up.”
In practice Monday, Bennett stressed, as he often does, the importance of transition defense.
“Build a wall,” he instructed his players. “We are not gonna let Green get there.”
Harris said: “It seems like their guys will get a rebound, and [Green is] just finding a spot at halfcourt, just waiting to get it, and then he just takes off. He’s trying to draw a foul or make a play, which he does a really good job of in transition. So he’s like his own fast break, and we’ve got to get back and wall him off.”
The Cavaliers have won a school-record 13 consecutive games at John Paul Jones Arena, where their record is 14-1 this season. Harris expects an electric atmosphere Tuesday night.
“I think the energy and the effort and all that will be there, just because of the magnitude of the game,” Harris said. “No matter what the records of the two teams are, I think that the rivalry itself kind of gets people amped up, and all the fans are very excited, so they bring a lot of energy. I think it’s just a matter of us sticking to what we know, playing solid defense, making it tough on Erick Green and kind of forcing other guys to beat us, and then just executing offensively.”