Feb. 25, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Mike Tobey checked into the game for the first time Sunday afternoon, the 6-11 freshman received a rousing ovation from the amped-up crowd of 12,232 at John Paul Jones Arena.

Equally excited about Tobey’s first appearance in three weeks was the teammate he replaced in UVa’s lineup with 10:27 left in the first half.

With Tobey back, “I get a break every once in a while,” 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell said after the game, a smile spread across his face. “I can afford a foul here or there. I don’t have to guard a 7-footer every night.”

After flagging noticeably in Virginia’s Feb. 3 game against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Tobey returned with the team to Charlottesville, where tests revealed he had mononucleosis. With 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, who started 12 of UVa’s first 16 games this season, hobbled by a stress reaction in his lower right leg, Tobey’s illness left the frontcourt perilously thin.

“Akil did a great job while we were both out for a little bit,” Tobey said. “But it hurt. I felt bad being out, just because of the sickness, and it was kind of a weird injury. How many people get mono?”

Fortunately for Tobey and the Cavaliers, his illness didn’t last long. “Some people have it for like three months,” he said. “I’m just happy it’s over with.”

Tobey was cleared to return to practice Thursday. Three days later he helped Virginia avenge its 66-60 loss to Georgia Tech. In 15 minutes off the bench, Tobey totaled seven points and four rebounds in the Wahoos’ 82-54 rout of the Yellow Jackets.

“I was so happy,” he said. “It just felt so good just to be back on the floor and playing.”

The right-handed Tobey air-balled his first shot — a left-handed jump-hook — and also missed his next two attempts. Finally, in the final minute of the first half, senior point guard Jontel Evans fired a pass inside to Tobey, who laid the ball in to push UVa’s lead to 41-29.

“You just gotta get the monkey off your back,” Tobey said. “It felt good from then on.”

In the second half, he slammed home a teammate’s miss and then capped his performance with a 3-pointer from the right corner.

“He wasn’t bashful when he got his hands on the ball,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, smiling. “Mike’s got a scoring mentality … But I thought those were good minutes for him, good action. There’s a pace and a timing when you’re in a game that’s a little different than practice.”

With four regular-season games left, the Cavaliers (19-8, 9-5) are assured of finishing at least .500 in ACC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1999-2000 and 2000-01.

“Over the last six weeks they’ve been playing just as well, if not better, than everybody in this league,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “They showed that today. They have a lot of weapons, and their upper-class guys are playing well. They outperformed us in every aspect of the game today.”

By beating Gregory’s Jackets (14-12, 4-10), Virginia extended its school-record winning streak at JPJ to 15 games. The Cavaliers haven’t lost at home since Nov. 13.

“The building’s electric on a Sunday, a Tuesday, a Thursday, any day of the week we suit up to play,” freshman forward Justin Anderson said. “The fans have our back, and they definitely give us that extra sixth-man boost.”

Bennett said: “When you feel the crowd getting behind you and [get] a big defensive stand, or you get the momentum of a bucket that turns the game around, that’s exciting, and you certainly can feel the energy. That’s what home court’s all about. It’s nice to see that the crowd’s really rallying behind these guys and has made a difference, without a doubt.”

UVa fans had plenty to cheer on an afternoon when, with Tobey back, Bennett had the luxury of resting Atkins. In his 84th start as a Cavalier, Evans played one of his finest games, finishing with 10 points, eight assists, three rebounds and no turnovers in 28 minutes. He also locked up senior point guard Mfon Udofia, who scored 15 points against Virginia in Atlanta but had only four Sunday.

“Jontel’s had some very good stretches for us,” Bennett said. “Is this the best? He played a very good game. He was very hard to keep out of the lane. Broke the press. So I was happy to see that, and I thought he did a real good job for us against Miami [on Tuesday night in Coral Gables, Fla.] … I thought he picked up where he left off, and obviously him getting to the basket and scoring some points was good.”

Evans said: “It feels good to have a performance like that.”

Mitchell could have said the same thing. He scored 18 points — his high in an ACC game — and grabbed a team-best eight rebounds. Seven of Mitchell’s boards came in the second half.

All-ACC candidate Joe Harris’ streak of 16 straight games with at least one 3-pointer ended Sunday, but the junior swingman still scored 15 points. The 6-7 Anderson, in his sixth straight start at power forward, contributed 11 points, four assists, two rebounds and two steals, and reserve guard Taylor Barnette, a 6-3 freshman, buried three treys in the second half, a shooting spree that helped the `Hoos blow the game open.

Coming off the bench cold and shooting 3-pointers is “a little bit more difficult, obviously, than being warm,” Barnette said, “but you get up so many repetitions [in practice], it’s like muscle memory. You just go out there, and you just gotta let it fly and not think about it.”

Barnette’s nine points matched his career high, as did his three treys. His first 3-pointer Sunday pushed UVa’s lead to 58-41. His second, on Virginia’s next possession, made it 61-41 with 9:41 remaining.

Gregory called a timeout, and Anderson, joyously waving a white towel, rushed from the Cavaliers’ bench to congratulate Barnette at midcourt. An official gently directed the uber-exuberant Anderson back to the bench.

“I was just so excited for Taylor,” Anderson said. “He’s stepping up, and he hit two big 3s at that point … That’s what you love to see from your teammates. It’s all about us. When one person has success, we want to make sure we celebrate with them.”

He flashed a sheepish grin. “Yeah, I got a little excited, but I can’t help it,” Anderson said. “I love the game. I love my teammates.”

The left-handed Barnette is no “3 o’clock All-American,” said Bennett, referring to a practice standout whose shooting touch disappears on game day. “He can hit `em when the lights are on, and that was a big lift for us,” Bennett said. “Some guys can and some guys can’t, and he’s shown that he can.”

For the season, Barnette is 15 for 32 from 3-point range. In ACC play, he’s 9 for 13 from beyond the arc.

Barnette said he’s been “persevering through all the defensive mistakes that I’ve had, and I just continue to work every day and try to get better.”

Learning the principles of Bennett’s trademark Pack Line defense has been difficult for him, Barnette said. “I didn’t play defense in high school,” he said, laughing. “We played zone in high school, so it’s completely different, but it’s good for me. I’m starting to catch on, and I just gotta continue to get better.”

When these teams met Feb. 3 at McCamish Pavilion, the `Hoos led by nine with eight minutes left, but Georgia Tech outscored them 18-3 the rest of the way. Virginia led by 12 at halftime Sunday, but the Jackets battled back, and with 14:13 left they pulled to 45-40 on freshman Robert Carter Jr.’s 3-pointer.

UVa answered with a 20-3 run, and that was that. “We said, don’t let history repeat itself,” Evans recalled. “Guys locked in and were able to go out there and finish the game strong.”

Mitchell said: “They snuck one against us [in Atlanta], and we kind of took it seriously. We had something we needed to prove to ourselves, and I feel like we did that.”

UP NEXT: Two regular-season home games remain for UVa. The first is Thursday, when No. 6 Duke (24-3, 11-3) visits JPJ for a 9 p.m. game that ESPN will televise.

In their four seasons under Bennett, the `Hoos have beaten each of their ACC counterparts, except the Blue Devils, at least once.

“I’m really looking forward to the challenge,” Evans said. “I know it’s going to be a battle. They’re a great team, and it’s just going to be a great game.”

As of Sunday night, fewer than 50 tickets remained for the game. For information, call (800) 542-8821 or visit www.VirginiaSports.com/tickets.

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