March 1, 2013
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Jontel Evans inbounded to Akil Mitchell, who dribbled once and then flung the basketball high into the air as the final second ticked off the clock at John Paul Jones Arena. Then came a flood of fans, mostly students, pouring out of the stands and onto the court to celebrate one of the great nights in the history of University of Virginia men’s basketball.
There was football player Morgan Moses, all 6-6 and 330 pounds of him, jammed next to wide receiver Darius Jennings and other smaller but no-less-jubilant classmates. In the middle of it all were the basketball players who made the celebration possible. Evans, UVa’s senior point guard, had the best view from which to survey the joyous scene, having been hoisted up on friendly shoulders.
Virginia 73, No. 3 Duke 68.
“I always wanted to be a part of a game where people stormed the court, and to do it on this stage, against a team like that, is unbelievable,” Evans said afterward.
The victory was the Cavaliers’ 16th straight at the arena named for the father of UVa alumnus Paul Tudor Jones, who sat courtside Thursday night. It was also Virginia’s first win over a top-five opponent in exactly 11 years — a third-ranked Duke team was also the victim that night at University Hall in 2002 — and the breakthrough came in front of the first sellout crowd at 14,593-seat JPJ this season.
“They get loud for a lot of games, but this was just deafening,” Mitchell said after totaling 19 points and 12 rebounds and outplaying 6-10 senior Mason Plumlee, a projected first-round pick in the next NBA draft.
Students lined up hours before the doors opened at JPJ. Once inside, the fans’ intensity never waned during a game televised nationally by ESPN.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a lot of pretty special settings, and this one ranked up there with how loud it was,” said Tony Bennett, UVa’s fourth-year coach. “That’s home-court advantage. The guys fed off of it, and defensively I thought it really helped them, and that’s what you need against a team like this.”
It also helps, of course, to have a player as talented as Joe Harris, the 6-6 junior from Chelan, Wash., who, with his father in the crowd, put on a magnificent performance. Harris finished with 36 points — nine more than his previous career high and the most by an ACC player this season.
Harris scored the game’s first points, on a pull-up jumper over Duke guard Seth Curry, to give the Wahoos (20-8, 10-5) a lead they never relinquished. By the time he fouled out with 40 seconds remaining, Harris had made 12 field goals, including two 3-pointers, and a career-best 10 free throws. He also had seven rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal.
“Harris was fantastic, which we knew he would be,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s just one of the best players in the country. He had half their points. When you got a guy playing at that level, their other kids played well, but it brings everybody up. You know you’re playing with a stud, and he was terrific.”
Apprised of Krzyzewski’s comments, Harris said that hearing “something like that from a coach I admired growing up and who is probably the greatest coach in basketball, or one of them at least, makes me feel pretty good. But overall it was a team effort tonight. It’s not like I did it by myself at all. I think everybody played really sound on both ends.”
Curry, who played for Ritchie McKay, now Virginia’s associate head coach, at Liberty University in 2008-09, led the Blue Devils (24-4, 11-4) with 28 points, and sophomore guard Quinn Cook added 22. But UVa limited Plumlee to 10 points — he came in averaging 17.5 — and only five shots.
“He had to earn his catches and he had to earn his looks, and our guys really swarmed him well,” Bennett said.
Plumlee’s teammates didn’t have much room in which to operate either. For the game, the Blue Devils shot 39.6 percent from the floor. Virginia outrebounded Duke 36-25.
“For the most part, it was a very good team defensive showing,” Bennett said.
The crowd helped, as Bennett had told his players it could. He wanted them to focus on the game and what happened on the court and not worry about the hype surrounding it. Still, Bennett said, he reminded his team that “if you play well and harness the energy that’ll be in the building, then it can be huge for you.”
Bennett said he thought his players “were a little nervous before the game, but the way they came out, and then the way the crowd got behind them, was terrific.”
The fans roared when Harris’ jumper made it 2-0. They shook the building when 6-7 freshman Justin Anderson soared to block a layup attempt by Plumlee, starting a fast break that ended with an Evans pass to sophomore swingman Paul Jesperson, whose 3-pointer made it 5-0.
Virginia scored the first nine points and led 18-6 with 10:55 left. Twice in the first half Duke cut its deficit to one, first at 22-21 and then at 24-23, but each time the Cavaliers answered, and they went into the break up 28-23.
“You knew [the Devils] were going to make a run,” Bennett said. “A couple times we lost vision [on defense], and that’s when those guys banged the 3s. But to go in ahead when we were laboring, I thought that was important. And then I thought we started the second half the right way, getting to the lane.”
With 15:10 left, UVa led 34-26 when Harris, going up for a shot, was fouled by Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon. The 6-4 freshman didn’t hide his displeasure over the call, and when he turned to official Roger Ayers and said, `All ball,” Sulaimon was rewarded with a technical foul.
Harris calmly sank four straight free throws, and suddenly it was 38-26.
On a night when Duke hit eight 3-pointers, Virginia made only three shots from beyond the arc. The second, by Harris, pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 53-39 with 7:09 to play. The third, again by Harris, made it 60-48 with 4:32 left.
In the final 3:25, Harris scored six points — four coming on stickbacks and two from the line.
“He showed his versatility, and when Joe gets that look in his eye that he’s not going to be denied, he’s hard to stop, because of his strength and size,” Bennett said. “Obviously he’s playing very good basketball. We needed that, and I’m so happy for him.
“I think he’s really improved, and I think he’s probably surprising some people. We saw this coming. I don’t know if I saw 36 and 7 coming, but we see it in practice, and we see him improving. He’s most unselfish guy that you’ll be around.”
Bennett didn’t realize until after the game that Harris had scored 36 points. Harris wasn’t keeping track, either.
“To be honest, I didn’t really put much thought into it,” he said. “I was just really focused and just trying to win the game. Fortunately enough, I was able to make a few baskets.”
Mitchell’s 19 points were the most he’s scored in an ACC game, and his 12 rebounds matched his career high in conference play.
“That was the best I’ve seen him,” Bennett said.
Especially impressive was Mitchell’s showing at the foul line Thursday night. As a freshman in 2010-11, he made only 51.7 percent of his free throws, and he dipped to 50.9 percent last season.
Against Duke, Mitchell made 9 of 10 foul shots. For the season, the 6-8, 234-pound junior is shooting 70 percent from the line.
“I feel a lot more confident in my shooting stroke,” Mitchell said. “Shout-out to Seth, who was talking a little trash on the free-throw line … He gave me a little motivation.”
Like Curry, Mitchell is a graduate of Charlotte Christian, where they played together for one season.
That Curry and the Blue Devils are headed back to the NCAA tournament is a given. The Cavaliers’ position isn’t as strong, but their latest victory significantly strengthened their postseason résumé. Virginia is bidding for a second straight appearance in the NCAAs.
“This is a big win for us and a big win for our program, but we still have to finish out the year strong,” Harris said. “There’s no slouches in conference play, and we gotta finish the year on a high note, and hopefully we’ll be fortunate enough to make the tournament.”
Bennett said: “I’m glad we played well, and we gotta keep playing well. I think it’s important how we handle this and go forward … I just want [the players] to pursue quality and pursue excellence and not get too high and not get too low.”
After the game, Bennett’s players were already talking about the challenge that awaits them Sunday afternoon at Boston College. But they won’t soon forget their magical night at JPJ.
“I’m going to remember this forever,” Evans said. “You come to the ACC and you always want to beat the top teams. That’s why I came here, to play against teams like that. Duke is a great team. They got great history over there, and just to beat them for the first time, in my last year, is just a great feeling.”
LOOKING AHEAD: The Cavaliers have three regular-season games remaining. The first is Sunday at 4 p.m. against Boston College (12-16, 4-11) in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
When the teams met Jan. 26 at JPJ, the `Hoos won 65-51. They expect the rematch to be a battle.
“We have small room for error,” Evans said. “We just gotta keep this mindset, stay focused, don’t think too high of ourselves, don’t think too low.”
UVa plays Thursday night at Florida State (15-13, 7-8), then closes the regular season March 10 versus Maryland (19-9, 7-8). The Cavaliers beat the Seminoles at JPJ on Jan. 19 and defeated the Terrapins in College Park on Feb. 10.
The ACC tournament is March 14-17 at the Greensboro Coliseum. UVa and North Carolina are tied for third in the ACC standings.