By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Spectators at the NC State-Virginia Tech men’s basketball game Thursday afternoon included UVa’s assistant coaches. The Cavaliers’ crew at the Greensboro Coliseum saw the Wolfpack whip the Hokies 80-63 in an ACC tournament first-round game, an outcome that surprised no one.
What stood out to him, Virginia assistant Jason Williford said Thursday evening, was how NC State’s players “amped up their defensive intensity. If they can defend that way, they’re extremely hard to beat.
“They got easy buckets, they got out in transition and they beat [Tech] on the glass, got some easy second-chance points, but the difference was their defensive intensity in the second half. They forced Tech into a lot of tough shots. Tech settled for some contested jumpers, and then [State] got out in transition.”
For a team facing NC State, slowing the Pack’s fast break has to be priority No. 1. “No question,” Williford said. “You gotta set your defense. You have to get back.”
The Wahoos were able to do so Jan. 29 at John Paul Jones Arena, where they edged the Wolfpack 58-55. The stakes are higher in the rematch. In the second ACC quarterfinal Friday, fourth-seeded Virginia (21-10) meets fifth-seeded State (23-9) at approximately 2:15 p.m.
A win would put the Cavaliers in the ACC semifinals for the first time since 1995, when their captains included Williford, then a senior forward. Each of UVa’s counterparts in the league has reached the semifinals since then, including three teams that have been in the ACC less than a decade: Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College.
“It’s one of the last things I gotta do [as a college player]: get to play on Saturday,” point guard Jontel Evans said Thursday after Virginia’s practice at UNC Greensboro.
Evans, a senior, is the only player left in the program who saw action in UVa’s most recent ACC tournament victory. That was a first-round win over Boston College in Greensboro on March 11, 2010, in the penultimate game of Tony Bennett’s first season as the Cavaliers’ coach.
“That’s a long time ago,” Evans said.
In 2011, as the No. 8 seed, UVa collapsed late in the second half and ended up losing in overtime to Miami in a first-round game at Greensboro. A year ago, in Atlanta, the fourth-seeded Cavaliers lost 67-64 to No. 5 seed NC State in the quarterfinals.
“I’ve never gotten to experience [Saturday at the ACC tournament],” said Virginia swingman Joe Harris, a junior who was named to the all-conference first team Monday.
“It would definitely help our NCAA tournament chances, and it would be just great for the program for us to make it into the semifinals.”
If the NCAA selection committee had to choose Friday monring, UVa might not be included in the 68-team field. The Cavaliers, however, have an opportunity in Greensboro to strengthen their postseason résumé by beating NC State, an exceptionally talented team led by big men C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, point guard Lorenzo Brown and 3-point specialist Scott Wood.
Virginia’s players grasp the importance of Friday’s game, but their coaches don’t want them focusing on the NCAAs. That was clear during practice Thursday.
“They’re just trying to get us in the right mindset going into our game,” Harris said. “Not to focus on all the outside stuff. Just play our game and control what we can control.”
The `Hoos entered their regular-season finale having lost two straight games and desperately needing a victory. That might have contributed to their awful start against Maryland, which led by 17 points late in the first half at JPJ.
The Cavaliers barely avoided what would have a devastating defeat, rallying to win 61-58 in overtime Sunday night.
“We learned in the second half of the Maryland game, because we had no other choice, you can’t worry about anything else but just trying to be as good and tough-minded as you can when you step on the floor,” Bennett said.
“That’s the mindset you have to have. When you’re in a game like that, you realize nothing else matters but: `Can we get a stop? Can we get a good-looking shot?’ And I think that’s gotta be the mindset, and if you’re not willing to fight for that moment by moment, then your mindset’s in the wrong place, and if you’re worried about the other stuff” — such as the NCAAs — “it’s in the wrong place.”
In the Jan. 29 game in Charlottesville, three players scored in double figures for UVa: Harris (22 points), 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell (14) and 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey (13). For NC State, Leslie (20 points and 14 rebounds) and Howell (12 and 11) had double-doubles. Brown, perhaps the ACC’s best pure point guard, sprained an ankle in the first half and played only 10 minutes.
Brown had 12 assists Thursday against the Hokies and helped the Pack slow ACC player of the year Erick Green. Howell led State with 22 points, and Leslie (15), Wood (13) and freshman forward T.J. Warren (13) also scored in double figures.
“Their offense is what it is,” Williford said. “They go inside, they go to Howell, they go to Leslie, they get those guys going. Brown’s great in transition. We know them. We know what type of game it’s going to be.”
Evans said: “If we play the game we’re capable of playing, everything will fall in place.”
The high point of the Cavaliers’ regular season came Feb. 3, a 73-68 win over then-No. 3 Duke at JPJ. Back-to-back road losses followed, and then Virginia needed one of the greatest comebacks in school history to edge Maryland.
Harris’ play mirrored that of the team during that stretch. Since scoring a career-best 36 points (and making 12 of 20 field-goal attempts) against Duke, he’s gone 13 for 44 from the floor. Harris made some critical plays late against Maryland but missed 14 of 18 shots that night.
“It’s part of the game,” Harris said Thursday. “Sometimes your shot’s going in, sometimes it’s not. But either way, you don’t get wrapped up too much into it. You still shoot the ball with the same amount of confidence, whether it’s going in or not.”
A year ago, Virginia limped into the ACC tournament. Bennett had only seven scholarship players available, one of whom, Harris, was hindered by a broken non-shooting hand.
The `Hoos are healthier — and deeper — this season. Tobey, who missed five games with mononucleosis last month, came off the bench to score 13 points and grab six rebounds Sunday night. Another big man, 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, missed eight regular-season games with a stress reaction in his lower right leg and was limited by the injury in seven others.
“Tobey I thought we’d have back [this season],” Bennett said Thursday. “I wasn’t sure about Darion.”
Atkins’ health, however, has improved dramatically over the past two weeks. He no longer walks or runs with a limp, he’s practicing without limitations, and he sparked the `Hoos in his seven minutes off the bench against Maryland.
This looks more like the team Bennett expected to have in his fourth season at UVa. The Cavaliers also have had to overcome a foot injury to Evans, who missed nine games in November and December.
“We’re getting closer,” Bennett said. “Originally we were playing this way, and then we didn’t have our point guard. Now we got our point guard. Then Darion got hurt and Mike was out, so we had to go to [a lineup with four perimeter players]. And now we’ve been able to get back to a little more of a traditional team. And I think that’s important. At times we can play four guards, but we also can play more traditional, which we did [against Maryland], because we had to.”