March 13, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the second half Sunday night at John Paul Jones Arena, UVa’s Darion Atkins blocked a shot by Jake Layman, grabbed the rebound and then got fouled by the Maryland forward.
“Welcome back, Mr. Atkins,” analyst Jay Williams said on the ESPNU broadcast.
Virginia fans were delighted to see Atkins, a 6-8, 230-pound sophomore, again flashing the athleticism that made him such a formidable defender early in the season. They were also nervous when, after being fouled, he stepped to the line for a one-and-one with 12:39 left in the second half.
Atkins, hindered by a stress reaction in his lower right leg for much of the season, hadn’t attempted a free throw in a game since Jan. 9, and he was shooting only 56.5 percent from the line. Moreover, Virginia trailed Maryland 38-30, a precarious position for a team that needed a win to stay in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
In the first half, Atkins knew, the Cavaliers had missed all three of their free-throw attempts. Before the biggest foul shots of his college career, Atkins recalled Tuesday, he thought to himself, “Just make `em. There’s nothing else to say. Just shoot `em with confidence.”
And that’s what he did, hitting both ends of the one-and-one and pulling the Wahoos as close to Maryland as they’d been since early in the first half. Virginia went on to win 61-58 in overtime, clinching the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the ACC tournament, which starts Thursday afternoon in Greensboro, N.C.
To know he made a tangible contribution to a critical victory “felt great,” Atkins said. “I felt like I hadn’t done anything up until that point … I wish I could have done more, but I felt really good.”
In seven minutes Sunday night, Atkins totaled two points, two blocked shots, one rebound and one steal, his most productive stint in more than two months. Especially encouraging to Virginia’s coaching staff was the ease with which Atkins, who missed eight regular-season games and limped through seven others, moved on the court against Maryland.
“It’s nice to see Darion and now Mike [Tobey] now playing,” head coach Tony Bennett said. “Just to see Darion give us a few minutes in the second half [was good].”
Tobey, a 6-11 freshman who missed five games with mononucleosis last month, had 13 points and six rebounds Sunday night. He scored the basket that sent the game into overtime and then, in the extra period, the basket that put the `Hoos ahead for good.
Atkins started 12 games before his injury sidelined him in mid-January. He had 14 points and seven rebounds in Virginia’s Nov. 28 win at Wisconsin, and he pulled down a career-best 11 boards three days later in a victory over Green Bay.
For the season, Atkins is averaging 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds, and he’s second on the team in blocked shots, with 27. He’s not 100 percent, but “I feel a lot better,” he said Tuesday. “My leg, it’s come a long way. The pain is less, obviously, and I just feel more confident and more excited out on the court.”
The breakthrough came last Wednesday during a practice at Florida State’s Donald L. Tucker Center.
“Man, I felt good that practice,” Atkins said. “I was running up and down the court. I don’t know what it was. Maybe I just didn’t think about it, or the pain just went away.”
At times, Atkins acknowledged, he doubted he’d be able to run without pain again this season. “I didn’t think it looked good, but I just kept up with my treatments and kept up my cross-training with [athletic trainer] Ethan [Saliba] and then it just healed up on its own. It was just a matter of time.”
Pointing to his leg, Atkins said, “You could actually feel it if you put your hand down there. There’s a lump, and that lump is all new bone that’s completely healed.”
Last month he shed the air cast that for weeks had protected his shin during practices and games. Atkins wore a sleeve on his lower right leg in practice Tuesday, but that was “because in the Maryland game, right before I came out, I got kicked in my shin,” he said, shaking his head. “I got kicked in my sore spot.”
The kick stung, but it was only a temporary setback for Atkins, who’s eager to play in his second ACC tournament. Virginia (21-10) will face No. 5 seed NC State or No. 12 seed Virginia Tech in the second quarterfinal Friday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum.
A season ago, NC State knocked off fourth-seeded UVa in an ACC quarterfinal. That Virginia team entered postseason with only seven healthy scholarship players. This group is considerably deeper, now that Tobey and Atkins are again among the Cavaliers’ frontcourt options.
“I’m excited,” Atkins said. “I feel like we can make a good run. We have lot more depth than last year, and I feel like we can do something special.”