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March 20, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, the University of Virginia faced a team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league whose members have never beaten UVa in men’s basketball.

In the second round, the Cavaliers will meet a team from the rugged Big East. Moreover, that opponent, St. John’s, is 7-0 all-time against UVa in this sport. The Red Storm edged Saint Joseph’s in a first-round game Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

Virginia opened its 13th trip to the NIT with a 67-56 victory over Norfolk State before a vocal crowd of 4,790 at John Paul Jones. The Cavaliers’ performance thrilled no one associated with their program Tuesday night.

“Obviously we’ll probably have to play a little bit better to [beat St. John’s],” junior swingman Joe Harris said as midnight approached.

The Wahoos (22-11) turned the ball over 17 times and made only 22 of 37 free throws. In the second half, they gave up eight offensive rebounds to the Spartans (21-12).

“We got just enough stops, obviously, to be successful,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, “but we had trouble handling the ball, making free throws, keeping them off the glass, and those things kind of cost us. But enough plays were made on the defensive end, and a few buckets here and there, to keep Norfolk State at bay.”

The officiating crew called 47 fouls Tuesday night, and at times it seemed the game would never end. Norfolk State, with 18 turnovers, was no more careful with the ball than UVa.

“It was not a pretty game at all,” Bennett said. “But at this point, to be able to come away with one not playing well was important.”

The MEAC’s regular-season champion, Norfolk State scored the game’s first eight points. By halftime, the `Hoos led 26-16, but their slow start reflected their general lack of concentration Tuesday night.

“That wasn’t us,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said. “We have to come out with more energy and more focus than that. If we come out like that against St. John’s, it will be over.”

The `Hoos will host the Red Storm (17-15) in a second-round game Sunday or Monday at JPJ. An announcement on the date and starting time is expected late Wednesday night. Virginia is a No. 1 seed in the 32-team tournament; St. John’s, a No. 5 seed. Tickets for the game, $10 apiece, will go on sale at 10 a..m. Thursday.

In the teams’ most recent meeting, St. John’s defeated UVa 73-63 in an NIT second-round game in Jamaica, N.Y., on March 24, 2003.

The videotape of the Cavaliers’ first-round game may give the Red Storm some ideas about how to stymie Bennett’s team. UVa, which primarily faced man-to-man defenses during the regular season, appeared perplexed by Norfolk State’s 3-2 zone for long stretches Tuesday night.

“We were very stagnant to start out against that zone,” Bennett said. “Too many turnovers, guys looked uncomfortable. We haven’t had a team play us quite like that most of the year. In the second half I thought we moved a little better. They played some more man-to-man, but even against their zone we had some more movement, and I thought it helped us.”

All-ACC selections were announced recently. From UVa, Harris made the first team, 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell made the third team and Evans was a repeat choice for the all-defensive team. The Cavaliers’ best player Tuesday night, though, was 6-6 freshman Justin Anderson, who finished with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, one steal and one blocked shot in 30 minutes.

“That’s what he’s been doing all year,” Mitchell said. “He makes a nice pass or a big dunk or whatever. He’ll always find a way to spark the team.”

Mitchell had a career-high five turnovers Tuesday night, and Harris had four. “They were out of sorts as far as the turnovers,” Bennett said. “We just needed someone to make some plays and get us some easy buckets, and Justin did that. “

At times when the Spartans pressed in the second half, Anderson brought the ball up. On back-to-back possessions, he broke the press and found Mitchell for baskets — the first a dunk and the second a layup that made it 44-38 with 7:30 left.

“He’s a really good passer,” Mitchell said. “He sees the floor very well. He dumps things off and makes the game a lot easier for all of us.”

Anderson said: “I love it. From my young days, I always wanted to be a point guard, but God didn’t make me like that right now, so you gotta do what you gotta do. But yeah, that was fun, for sure. I just love passing the ball.”

Equally important, Anderson hit 7 of 9 free throws — all in the second half. On a night when many of his teammates seemed lethargic, Anderson provided a much-needed emotional boost that helped the `Hoos stretch their home winning streak to 18 games.

“Coming off of not getting selected into the [NCAA] tournament, it’s kind of a mental drain on your team, and you have to keep everybody encouraged,” Anderson said. “I think that’s a part of my role on this team, keeping everybody encouraged, keeping everybody motivated, and having fun out there on the court, and I think that’s what I needed to do tonight.”

Mitchell finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds — his 12th double-double of the season — and had a terrific second half. In the first 20 minutes, though, he had more turnovers (four) than points (two) or rebounds (three). Mitchell also missed all three of his first-half free throws.

“I just felt terrible the first half,” he said. “I felt sluggish. The game was moving fast, and I couldn’t really get going. It was just a rough first half.”

Mitchell then missed three of the first five free throws he attempted in the second half. And so when Evans hit the head on the court after being fouled while making a layup, Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans selected Mitchell to shoot the free throw.

On the UVa bench, associate head coach Ritchie McKay kind of smiled at me and said, `They chose you,’ and told me I was going to knock it down,” Mitchell said. “From there on out, I was just more confident.”

He completed the three-point play, making it 47-40 with 6:54 to play, and then hit two more free throws at the 1:31 mark.

Evans, after being examined by head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba and Dr. John MacKnight, checked back into the game with 3:58 left. “Neck’s a little sore, but I’m OK,” Evans said afterward.

Anderson wasn’t the only UVa freshman to distinguish himself Tuesday night. Point guard Teven Jones replaced Evans in the first half and hit two 3-pointers, matching his career high, and forward Evan Nolte contributed seven points, five rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block in 24 minutes.

Nolte was on the receiving end of two hard fouls in the final minutes. Anderson wasn’t surprised that the game got chippy.

He knew the Spartans “were gonna come in and they were gonna try to beat the state school, just as ODU did [in December],” Anderson said. “That bad taste I got from ODU came back to my memory. I knew they were gonna come in hungry and they were gonna fight. A lot of people look at our school and think we’re a bunch of soft guys and all of that, but we’re a tough team, and I loved how we battled back. We played through all the jawing that they did, and we stuck to our system, and I think that’s why we were successful.”

Bennett said: “We had just enough.” In the end, that was the story of the Cavaliers’ NIT opener.

“Like Coach said, that’s the good thing about tournament play: You survive and advance and just try to play better the next game,” Nolte said.

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