March 11, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As he and his teammates headed to the locker room after the final regular-season game of his college basketball career — an emotionally draining overtime victory over Maryland — a tearful Jontel Evans stopped and embraced his head coach Sunday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
“Those are the moments that are just special,” Tony Bennett said Monday morning.
This is Bennett’s fourth year at the University of Virginia, and Evans, a 5-11 point guard from Bethel High in Hampton, has been with him every step of every season.
“He’s the very first player I’ve ever coached from the start to finish,” said Bennett, who spent three seasons as Washington State’s head man before coming to UVa in the spring of 2009.
“That’s just a special thing, and we kind of share that bond,” Bennett said. “Obviously no one can take that away.”
A tweet from Evans said it all Monday: “Glad [Bennett] re-recruited me and I got a chance to play for him.”
In November 2008, Evans and Tristan Spurlock made up the recruiting class that signed with UVa, whose head coach then was Dave Leitao. Virginia fired Leitao after the 2008-09 season and hired Bennett as his successor.
Evans and Spurlock, after meeting separately with Bennett, enrolled at UVa as planned in June 2009. But Spurlock, unhappy with his role in the program, transferred to Central Florida after his first year at Virginia, leaving Evans as the only scholarship player in their class. (Doug Browman, who came to UVa as a walk-on in 2009, was awarded a scholarship in January.)
The Cavaliers finished 15-16 in 2009-10 and weren’t much better (16-15) in 2010-11.
Bennett said he and Evans have talked about how they “know what it was like those first two years and how hard it was. I told Jontel I’ve seen him at his best, I’ve seen him at his worst, I’ve seen him kind of come in a boy, and he’s leaving a man.”
Evans has started 88 games as a Cavalier: 11 as a freshman, 27 as a sophomore, 32 as a junior and 18 this season. The total would be higher had Evans not missed nine games early this season after recovering from foot surgery.
He’s never been much of an offensive threat, but Evans is a relentless on-the-ball defender who has steadily progressed as a passer. In ACC games, he ranks second in the league at 5.3 assists per game, and on Monday he was named to the conference’s all-defensive team for the second straight season.
As a junior, Evans playing a leading role as the Wahoos advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. Many of his averages are down this season, but Evans has helped put the `Hoos in contention for another invitation to the NCAAs.
“He’s driven by his emotion, and he plays with a great passion,” Bennett said. “I’ve really grown to admire Jontel. He’s not perfect, and I know he probably gets criticized for some things about his game, but he’s improved, and he’ll give you everything he can. Sometimes his greatest blessing — his passion and emotion — can also be his curse. That’s kind of true with all of us. But I’ve seen him just grow in so many ways.”
Virginia, which trailed Maryland by 17 points late in the first half Sunday night, mounted an epic comeback and won 61-58 in overtime. The victory, their 17th straight at JPJ, earned the Cavaliers’ the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament, which starts Thursday afternoon at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.
“I don’t know what it was,” Evans said when asked about UVa’s slow start Sunday night. “That wasn’t Virginia basketball in the first half. We were getting our butts kicked on both ends of the floor. We just wanted to come out in the second half and change that, and that’s what we did.”
UVa, which has a first-round bye in the ACC tourney, will face No. 5 seed NC State or No. 12 seed Virginia Tech in the second quarterfinal Friday afternoon.
Evans contributed three points, four rebounds, three assists and a steal Sunday night. He missed a layup in the final minute of overtime, but he redeemed himself by helping force Maryland’s Dez Wells into a turnover with 8.2 seconds left.
“I got a hand in the way, and [the ball] just bobbled off his foot, and that was huge for us,” Evans said.
The dramatic finish capped an emotional night for the young man who goes by Bub. A few minutes before tipoff Sunday, Evans had been honored, along with Browman and student-manager Johnny Carpenter, in a Senior Day ceremony in which he was accompanied by his parents, his aunts, his uncle, his grandmother and his girlfriend, UVa women’s basketball player China Crosby.
“That’s when it hit me, holding up my jersey in front of all these fans, and they’re standing up and clapping,” Evans said. “It just means a lot, because they appreciate what I’ve done these last four years.”
Bennett said: “A lot of guys maybe wouldn’t have hung in there, but he’s always hung in there. His heart is golden, and I really like what this experience has and will do for him.”