March 11, 2013

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — If fans at John Paul Jones Arena started to despair, as all but the most optimistic among them surely did Sunday night, UVa’s players never lost hope.

Not when Maryland led by 17 points late in the first half. Not when, after a rally by the Cavaliers early in the second half, the Terrapins stretched their lead back to 13. Not even when it appeared that Virginia’s best player, Joe Harris, might never get another shot to drop.

“As bad as we were playing, I still felt like if we keep plugging away, there’s tons of time, and you never know what could happen,” Harris said.

What happened was one of the most epic comebacks in the history of UVa basketball. After Maryland went up 9-6 on a three-point play with 15:12 left in the opening half, Virginia trailed until the 1:35 mark of the second half, when Harris buried a 3-pointer that made it 52-52.

The Terps answered, but Virginia center Mike Tobey scored inside with 5.4 seconds left to force overtime. In the extra period, the 6-11 freshman put the Wahoos ahead for good with a tip-in with 1:45 left and then, in the final seconds, leaped to challenge a 3-point attempt by Maryland’s Dez Wells.

The shot rimmed out, the crowd of 11,794 exhaled, and the `Hoos celebrated a 61-58 victory that revived their hopes of advancing to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

“That was definitely a roller-coaster, if I’ve ever played in one,” Harris said.

Not since they erased a 19-point deficit and beat Arizona on Nov. 12, 2006, in the first game at JPJ, had the Cavaliers produced such a comeback. The victory extended Virginia’s school-record winning streak at JPJ to 17 games.

“We just talked about coming back possession by possession,” said Tobey, who finished with 13 points and six rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench. “There’s no such thing as a 13-point play, so we just gotta work our way back in, and that’s what we did.”

Harris said: “Everyone was pretty calm and poised. We knew it was a long game. We were only down 13 at half. We felt like we should have been down by a lot more than that. So to be down by 13, we were happy that it was that close. We just kept chipping away at it.”

When it became apparent a couple of weeks ago that Virginia would not win the ACC’s regular-season title, fourth-year coach Tony Bennett challenged his players to earn one of the four first-round byes in the conference tournament.

After Virginia knocked off then-No. 3 Duke at JPJ on Feb. 28, that goal appeared well within its reach. Then came close losses at Boston College (53-52) and Florida State (53-51). UVa got an unexpected assist Saturday when FSU defeated NC State. Even so, the Cavaliers needed to beat the Terrapins to edge the Wolfpack for the No. 4 seed in the ACC tourney. For much of the game Sunday, the prize seemed to be slipping away from the ‘Hoos.

“It didn’t look probable, but they gutted it out,” Bennett said, “and that’s a credit to them.”

UVa finished the regular season at 21-10 overall and 11-7 in ACC play. Virginia will meet No. 5 seed NC State or No. 12 Virginia Tech in a quarterfinal Friday at approximately 2 p.m. in Greensboro, N.C.

“We’re not looking forward to the NCAA tournament,” UVa freshman Justin Anderson said. “That stuff’s gonna come. Right now we’re eyes on the prize. Eyes on the prize is the next game, and we’re trying to work to an ACC championship.”

A 6-6 freshman who starred at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md., Anderson played a leading role in Virginia’s 80-69 win over Maryland in College Park last month. He was sensational again Sunday night.

Anderson finished with eight points, six rebounds, three assists and five blocked shots, which tied the record for the most rejections by a UVa player at JPJ.

“I didn’t realize he had five blocks, but every one was significant,” Bennett said.

Anderson also was responsible for the game’s biggest pass. After Wells hit a leaner to put Maryland up 54-52 with 23.8 seconds left in regulation, Virginia set up for a final shot. Bennett didn’t like what he saw on the court and called a timeout with 6.9 seconds remaining.

When the teams returned to the court, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon called a timeout, after which he decided to double-team Harris, the ACC’s second-leading scorer. That left Anderson, who was inbounding the ball from the sideline opposite UVa’s bench, with no defender to block his vision.

Anderson looked first for 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell, and then for Harris. Neither was open. And so Anderson passed to his third option, Tobey, in the post. Maryland center Alex Len, a 7-1 sophomore who’s projected as a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, saw the pass coming and tried to knock away the ball.

“Not very smart,” Turgeon said.

The right-handed Tobey caught Anderson’s pass, turned and laid the ball in the basket with his left hand with 5.4 seconds left.

“No question it was a big play by both of those guys,” Bennett said, “to make the pass and then to catch and to finish.”

Anderson said: “They doubled Joe with [Jake] Layman, and Mike was there for a great catch. He had great hands on that play, and he went up and finished it, so strong and tough, and sent us right into overtime, and that’s what we needed.”

In OT, Mitchell scored inside with 4:05 left to make it 56-54, UVa’s first lead since the game’s first minute. After Wells threw down an emphatic slam, Mitchell scored again, this time following his own miss, to make it 58-56 with 2:18 remaining.

After two free throws by Wells, the Cavaliers went back inside. When Mitchell missed, Tobey and Len each got a hand for the rebound. The ball dropped through to make it 60-58 with 1:45 left.

“I’ll be honest, I kind of hit [Len’s] hand, and he hit it in,” Tobey said with a smile. “We got lucky on that one. I’ll take it.”

Faust missed a 3-point attempt, but Maryland got the ball back after an empty UVa possession, and Turgeon called a timeout with 41.7 seconds remaining. The play he drew up went awry, but the Terps got a reprieve when Virginia point guard Jontel Evans, after coming up with the steal, missed a layup in transition with 27 seconds left.

“I was running too fast,” Evans said. “I thought Nick Faust was about to try to block it on the glass. Before I went up, I was bobbling it, so that’s what caused me to miss it.”

He smiled. “I apologize to the fans for making them nervous, because it should have been a for-sure basket.”

The Terps (20-11, 8-10) failed to capitalize. When Wells, covered by Anderson, drove into the lane, Evans reached out and got a hand on the ball, which Wells then knocked out of bounds with 8.2 seconds left. Mitchell, fouled a second later, hit 1 of 2 from the line to help the `Hoos secure their fifth straight victory over the Terrapins and improve to 18-1 at home this season.

“To be able to pull this one out is a great way to finish the season and a great win to propel us into the ACC tournament,” Mitchell after posting his 11th double-double (17 points and 10 rebounds) of the season.

Before the game, three members of the program were recognized in a Senior Night ceremony: Evans, point guard Doug Browman and student-manager Johnny Carpenter.

A disastrous first half followed for the `Hoos. “I don’t know what it was,” Evans said. “That wasn’t Virginia basketball in the first half. We were getting our butts kicked on both ends of the floor.”

With 1:25 left, Maryland led 31-14, and Virginia’s fans looked on in disbelief. But Mitchell hit a left-handed jump hook — UVa’s first points in about four minutes — and then Anderson closed the half with a trey that made it 32-19.

It was huge for the `Hoos, Mitchell said, “to see something go in the basket right before halftime. The difference between 13 and 16 points is big when you’re going into halftime, just for morale and getting the momentum. Even if it was just a little bit, that little bit was all we needed.”

The Cavaliers also needed Harris, and when it mattered most, he delivered. The 6-6 junior made only 4 of 18 shots from the floor Sunday night — and only 5 of 8 from the line — but he calmly sank two free throws with 2:13 left in regulation to pull UVa to 50-49. After Faust scored at the other end, Harris found himself open behind the arc and didn’t hesitate. His 3-pointer made it 52-52, and JPJ shook from the fans’ roar.

“He was struggling early,” Bennett said, “but he battled. You’ll never question Joe’s warrior mentality, how hard he’s going to go and what he’s going to do.”

Harris said: “I wasn’t shooting the ball well, but in the back of my mind, for some reason I still had a lot of confidence. I felt like the next one I was going to shoot was going to go in, every single time. I had a rough patch there, but [UVa’s other players are] so good about just being real optimistic. Everyone’s just like, `You’ve got the next one, the next shot.’ Everybody’s encouraging you to just keep shooting the ball, and I think because of that, you don’t let yourself get down.”

Outrebounded 24-12 in the first half, the `Hoos outrebounded the Terps 28-20 the rest of the way, in part because Bennett played two traditional big men — usually Mitchell and Tobey — together for most of the final 25 minutes.

“I just thought we needed to play an inside-out game, we needed to be more physical, we needed to have a chance on the glass,” Bennett said. “Sometimes, obviously, size just does that.”

UVa probably needs to win at least one game in Greensboro to remain a viable candidate for the NCAAs. For the Cavaliers, that beats the challenge they would have faced had they lost Sunday night.

“We were very fortunate to get the win,” Bennett said. “I’m no dummy on that one, but guys did step up and make plays, and we got some stops.”

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