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March 24, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nineteen consecutive home wins later, the UVa men’s basketball is back where it found itself Nov. 13 when it took the court at John Paul Jones Arena: one victory from Madison Square Garden.

The first time, in the second round of the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament, the Cavaliers lost 59-53 to Delaware, a setback that ended their dream of a Thanksgiving week trip to New York City.

This time, the Wahoos are in the full-fledged National Invitation Tournament, a tradition-rich event first held in 1938. UVa beat Norfolk State 67-56 in the opening round Tuesday night and then stopped St. John’s 68-50 in a Sunday matinee.

A third-round win, over Iowa, would send Virginia to the NIT semifinals, April 2 at The Garden. The NIT championship game is April 4.

“Everybody knows we messed up our chance in the beginning against Delaware to go to Madison Square, and now guys are just eager and just itching to get that chance back,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said Sunday afternoon. “We’ve got a lot of energy back. We know we’re close to getting back there.”

The Cavaliers (23-11), one of four No. 1 seeds in the 32-team NIT, host Iowa (23-12), a No. 3 seed, in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Wahoos have not lost at JPJ since falling 59-53 there to Delaware.

“I think we’re a completely different team now,” UVa guard Taylor Barnette said Sunday.

St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said the `Hoos are “an NCAA tournament-caliber team who happen to be playing in the NIT. I think that’s what we saw, an NCAA-caliber team playing on their home floor. “

Barnette, a 6-3 left-hander from Lexington, Ky., is part of the first-year class that buried the Red Storm (17-16). The only starter among Virginia’s five scholarship freshmen, 6-6 forward Justin Anderson, scored a career-high 18 points and added four assists and three blocked shots.

Anderson also hit 9 of 10 free throws in a game in which his teammates were a combined 6 for 14 from the line.

Barnette buried three treys and scored 13 points — four more than his previous career high — and 6-11 center Mike Tobey contributed 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Teven Jones, a 6-0 guard, made a momentum-changing 3-pointer in the first half, and 6-8 forward Evan Nolte had three rebounds, two assists and a steal.

“I thought the first-years really gave us a lift and played very good basketball, and that was pivotal in this game,” said Tony Bennett, Virginia’s fourth-year coach. “They made good decisions, obviously shot it well, got to the line, just did some nice things, and I was very pleased with that opportunity to be in this setting and to get those guys in there. They really pushed this thing through for us.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the 11 a.m. start, both teams started slowly Sunday. Eight minutes in, Virginia had only four points, and when a dunk by guard Phil Greene IV pushed the Red Storm’s lead to 8-4, Bennett called a timeout.

Into the game went Jones, Tobey and Nolte, for Evans, 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell and 6-6 sophomore Paul Jesperson. The first-years provided an immediate jolt of energy, starting with Jones, whose trey pulled Virginia to 8-7 and seemed to wake up both his team and the crowd of 8,457.

“It was huge, and I love it when Teven gets going,” Anderson said. “He comes in and he bangs that big-time 3, that’s huge for us. That lifts everybody up.”

Nolte then came up with a steal, starting a possession that ended with a layup by Tobey, whose basket gave the `Hoos the lead for good. Not until All-ACC swingman Joe Harris, a 6-6 junior, sank a baseline jumper to make it 13-8 did someone other than a freshman score for UVa.

“It’s very exciting,” Anderson said of his class’ potential. “I’ve said all year, I hate thinking about the future. I like thinking about the next game and thinking about Iowa that we have coming in. But it always feels good to look to your left and to your right and say, `I feel comfortable with these guys.’ I can’t wait to go to battle every single night with them. With everybody stepping up, it’s the best feeling. You’re part of a great basketball program, and all we can do is continue to build off of this.”

Anderson’s previous career high, 17 points, came in a Feb. 10 win at Maryland. As the season has progressed, his role on the team has steadily increased, and he’s often at his best in the biggest moments. One thing is certain: UVa fans adore Anderson, whose 17th and 18 points Sunday came on a tomahawk dunk off a lob pass from Evans.

“Justin certainly gets the crowd going, and he made some good defensive plays,” Bennett said. “As he continues to mature and be sound, he’s just going to get better and better. But he’s unafraid, and he makes plays in different ways, whether it’s hitting a shot, getting an offensive rebound, [making] a pass. So that versatility and those things, as he’s continuing to evolve, are very good. And when we’ve played well, he’s kind of an X-factor guy for us.”

Barnette provided another spark Sunday. Not long after entering the game at the 8:09 mark of the first half, he passed to Evans for a layup that made it 16-11. Evans then returned the favor, finding Barnette in transition for a layup that stretched Virginia’s lead to 18-11.

Later came back-to-back possessions that ended with high-arcing 3-pointers from Barnette, whose marksmanship whipped fans into a frenzy.

“They were excited to see us knocking down shots,” Mitchell said. “Taylor gave us a great boost, so it was exciting. Watching Taylor in practice we know what to expect — he’s a firecracker. If he gets any daylight or any room then it’s going in. When he’s playing well, it’s nothing but the bottom of the net. We were all excited for him today.”

With 43 seconds left, Barnette walked to the UVa bench, serenaded by the first standing ovation of his college career.

“I give all the credit to my teammates and coaches,” he said. “They’re the ones that made that happen. But that was a lot of fun. You can’t do anything but smile when something like that happens, so I really enjoyed it.”

Coming off the bench, Barnette said, he focuses on “doing whatever I can for the team, playing my role. If there’s an open shot, take it. If not, make the next pass, screen, play team defense. I’m just trying to play my role to the fullest.”

The fans did their part Sunday, too, once again supplying the Cavaliers with a pronounced home-court advantage.

“To have that crowd that early on a Sunday,” Bennett said, “and to see them get behind us and really pull for us and give us that kind of edge that we needed, was so important.”

Bennett also praised the dedication of the athletics department’s facilities and game operation staff, whose work in the wee hours enabled the `Hoos to play a second straight home game in the NIT. Country star Luke Bryan played a concert at JPJ on Saturday night, but staffers arrived at 4:30 a.m. Sunday to make sure the court would be back down in time for the game.

The Cavaliers have played 21 home games this season, a school record. One more win at JPJ would further extend the season of a team whose rotation includes only one senior, Evans.

“It’s good for our program,” Bennett said of the NIT run. “It’s certainly good for [the younger players] to have those experiences and learn from it. The offseason will be significant, how they develop. Everything’s important, so the more you can play, the more you can be in a tournament setting and have to execute and perform and have success, that’s just a great deposit in the bank. Or when you struggle, you say, `All right, I know what I gotta get after and work at in the offseason.’ It’s very productive for us to have this experience and get those games.”

Anderson said: “Being a first-year, you’re just happy to play basketball, you’re happy to keep living your freshman season. I don’t want it to be over … I want to keep playing as long as I can, and we’ve got an opportunity to keep playing basketball, so why not take it?”

Madison Square Garden is only a win away.

“That’s like a dream come true for anyone, I think, any basketball player,” Barnette said. “That’s just such a prestigious arena. It would just be a real blessing and really fun, just a great opportunity.”

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