By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The gap between the men’s basketball programs at UVa and Virginia Tech widened further Tuesday night. Especially sobering for Tech, no doubt, is the knowledge that Joe Harris will be back in a Virginia uniform next season.
On a night when the Hokies’ best player, senior guard Erick Green, made only 4 of 17 shots from the floor, Harris was ruthlessly efficient for the Cavaliers, who romped 73-55 before an amped-up crowd of 11,764 at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We hoped to slow him down a bit, but he came out of the gates blazing,” Virginia Tech coach James Johnson said after his team’s seventh straight defeat.
Fans have become accustomed to such performances from Harris, a 6-6 junior who leads Virginia in scoring. He was 7 for 10 from the floor in a 37-point rout of Clemson last Thursday and 7 for 8 in an 11-point win at Maryland on Sunday afternoon. Against the Hokies, Harris was 7 for 12.
Even more remarkable has been his 3-point accuracy during this stretch. He was 2 for 4 from beyond the arc against Clemson and 3 for 4 versus Maryland. On Tuesday night, Harris buried his first five 3-point attempts — all in the first half — and finished 5 for 7 from long range.
“First half, the basket felt pretty big,” Harris said after scoring a career-high 26 points and helping Virginia (18-6, 8-3) extend its school-record winning streak at JPJ to 14 games.
Tech (11-13, 2-9) opened the game with 6-8 forward CJ Barksdale on Harris, and later tried 6-1 guard Marquis Rankin. Nothing worked for the Hokies, the ACC’s last-place team. Harris’ first trey came from the right wing, the second from the left wing, the third from the right corner, the fourth from left wing, and the fifth, in transition, from the left wing.
“I thought it was impressive,” said UVa coach Tony Bennett, who was one of the greatest 3-point shooters in NCAA history as a point guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“I said he made me look like a good coach when he comes out and plays like that. He had great rhythm, he was hunting the shot, moving hard off the screens … I love seeing that, and again we needed that to get off to the right kind of start.”
For the season, Harris is averaging 16.3 points. He’s shooting 48.4 percent from 3-point range, best in the ACC, and has become increasingly assertive for a team that’s won seven of its past eight games.
“Joe finally has that killer mindset which we’ve been wanting him to have since last year,” point guard Jontel Evans said. “He’s being very aggressive on the offensive end, which we need, because he shoots the ball lights out. And on the defensive end he’s very sound and aggressive as well. He’s just playing unbelievable basketball right now.
“When he gets it going, he [attracts] so much attention, and then you still got Paul Jesperson, Evan Nolte, Taylor Barnette and Justin [Anderson] out there that can shoot the 3, and it just gets our offense going.”
The Cavaliers, third in the ACC standings, swept their series with the Hokies for the second time in three seasons. UVa’s margin of victory Tuesday night was its largest against Tech since an 86-61 win on Jan. 23, 1991.
Harris wasn’t the only Cavalier to torment the Hokies. Akil Mitchell, a 6-8 junior, finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. Jesperson, a 6-6 sophomore, contributed eight points in his 22 minutes. Evans, the only senior who plays regularly for the Wahoos, totaled eight points, seven rebounds (matching his career high) and six assists, with only one turnover.
Equally important, the 5-11 Evans, a member of the ACC’s all-defensive team last season, helped keep the 6-4 Green from finding his rhythm in the first half. Green, the nation’s leading scorer, missed all seven of his field-goal attempts in the first 20 minutes.
“It was pretty solid team defense on him, and Jontel’s very strong and quick,” Bennett said. “[Green] got a couple open looks that he didn’t hit, but there weren’t a lot of them.”
When the teams met Jan. 24 in Blacksburg, Virginia won 74-58, but Green scored a career-high 35 points. Before the rematch, Evans said, “I told my teammates that I’m going to [expend] all my energy on defense, because I want to show people that I’m still a good defender. What better chance than to go against one of the best players in the country, and I think I showed it today.”
The Cavaliers’ seventh 3-pointer of the first half, this one by Nolte, gave them a 36-23 lead at the break. Virginia led by at least 11 the rest of the way, even as Green heated up.
His first field goal, a 3-pointer from the left wing, came with 16:25 to play. Green hit another trey on Tech’s next possession, and then another with 14:36 remaining, but Virginia continued to score almost at will, and there was no late-game drama.
“Virginia played an excellent game tonight,” Johnson said. “We didn’t play well at all, but they had a lot to do with that … They are a very good basketball team — great on defense, good on offense.”
The Cavaliers have scored at least 70 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 2009-10, their first season under Bennett.
“I think guys have just been sharing the ball more and really playing into their own roles,” Jesperson said. “I think that’s why we’re starting to shine a little bit offensively.”
Another reason: Evans’ improved play. He missed nine games in November and December with a foot injury and struggled after his return. In his second game against the Hokies, however, Evans matched his season high by making four field goals, three on high-degree-of-difficulty drives.
“It’s huge when he’s getting to the rim and getting buckets,” Mitchell said. “It just opens the floor up so much. With all our shooters on the wings and our perimeter, there’s so much space, and if he’s not getting to the rim, then he’s finding somebody else. Our offense is running so much better.”
Harris left the game to a standing ovation with 2:09 left. He’d matched his career high with five 3-pointers and helped his team remain in the NCAA tournament conversation. As usual, he shared the credit.
“You just get yourself in a good rhythm, and that’s a testament to your teammates,” Harris said. “[UVa’s big men] do a good job of screening, and Jontel does a great job of finding you, and he’s really good at getting in the paint and making my job easy as a shooter.”
Nolte, a 6-8 freshman, made five 3-pointers in Virginia’s win at Cassell Coliseum last month. Afterward, Evans told reporters that Nolte, not Harris, might be the Cavaliers’ best shooter.
Evans smiled when asked Tuesday night about his assessment.
“I take that back,” he said. “Joe’s the best shooter on the team.”
UP NEXT: Road games against ACC rivals North Carolina (16-7, 6-4) and No. 3 Miami (19-3, 10-0) await Virginia. The `Hoos meet the Tar Heels at noon Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., then take on the Hurricanes at 9 p.m. Tuesday in Coral Gables, Fla.
That will be the only regular-season game between the Cavaliers and the `Canes, whose head coach, Jim Larranaga, is a former Virginia assistant. UVa defeated UNC 61-52 at JPJ on Jan. 6.
The `Hoos don’t play at home again until Feb. 24, when they entertain Georgia Tech (13-9, 3-7) in a 2 p.m. game. The Yellow Jackets rallied to beat the `Hoos 66-60 in Atlanta on Feb. 3.