By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When they arrived at the University of Virginia in 2009, the men’s basketball team was coming off a 10-18 season. Since then the Cavaliers have won 15, 16, 22 and, now, 23 games. And so in the home locker room Wednesday night, UVa coach Tony Bennett offered some perspective to the team’s departing seniors — point guards Jontel Evans and Doug Browman.
“I told Jontel and I told Doug, and then our senior manager, Johnny [Carpenter], `Walk out of here with your heads held high. You left the program in a better place than you found it,’ ” Bennett said after UVa’s 75-64 loss to Iowa in a National Invitation Tournament quarterfinal at John Paul Jones Arena.
The defeat ended not only the Wahoos’ fourth season under Bennett, but their 19-game winning streak at JPJ. Not since Nov. 13, in an NIT Season Tip-Off second-round game, had Virginia lost at home. In each case, the loss kept the Cavaliers from advancing to New York City to play at Madison Square Garden.
“Everybody was thinking about it, getting that opportunity again, and we just came up short again,” Evans said.
In the Nov. 13 loss to Delaware, Evans played only three minutes because of a foot injury, and his backup, redshirt freshman Teven Jones, missed the game with a stinger in his right shoulder.
Bennett had a full complement of players Wednesday night, backed by a boisterous crowd of 11,141, but that wasn’t enough.
UVa (23-12), which trailed 31-28 at the break, twice took a two-point lead in the second half on baskets by freshman center Mike Tobey. Each time guard Roy Devyn Marble answered for the Hawkeyes (24-12).
First, Marble hit a high-arcing jumper that made it 39-39 and then, after a UVa turnover, he dropped in an uncontested 3-pointer to make it 42-41 at the 13:00 mark. Virginia never led again. Marble, a 6-6 junior whose father, Roy, is Iowa’s all-time leading scorer, finished with 24 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals.
“I remember his father was a terrific player,” said Bennett, who grew up in Big Ten country, “and the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, because he can score and runs his cuts hard, and they screen hard and well for him. He had a very complete game, and we didn’t have anybody who could really get a stop on him.”
Against one of the nation’s best defenses, Iowa made 8 of 17 shots attempts from 3-point range and shot 49.1 percent from the floor overall. The Hawkeyes were 15 for 15 from the line.
“They just really played a heck of a game,” Evans said, “and they didn’t break down on either end of the floor, and eventually we broke down on both ends, which hurt us.”
Virginia’s best player in the NIT was freshman Justin Anderson, and the 6-6 freshman dazzled again against Iowa. In a team-high 35 minutes, Anderson totaled 24 points, six rebounds, five blocked shots, three steals and two assists.
Before Wednesday night, Anderson never had made more than two 3-pointers in a college game. He was 5 for 8 from beyond the arc against the Hawkeyes.
“I think he’s going to be a tremendous player,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He’s got an inside-outside game, and when he’s making 3s he’s really tough. He’s a handful. When he’s on the floor you have to figure out what to do with him and figure out whom to put on him.”
Virginia, which defeated Norfolk State in the NIT’s first round, eliminated St. John’s five days later. In three NIT games, Anderson averaged 19 points, 3.3 assists, 3.0 blocks and 1.3 steals, and he made 23 of 27 free throws.
“He’s unafraid of the moment,” Bennett said. “He plays hard, he plays with courage, he does some things that are terrific out there. He needs to keep improving his soundness and his ability to last defensively, as a lot of our guys do. But to see him play some of the promising basketball that he played down the stretch was encouraging, and I liked that.”
The NIT, Anderson said, was “probably a defining moment of my freshman year. Like I’ve been saying, it’s over, so all I can do is look back and see what I’ve done and how can I advance and how can I get better from that point … I want to keep elevating my game to the highest level, and I think this is something that I can look back on and see how I was aggressive. Not the shots that I made, but how I got those looks, and keep trying to those looks for next year, and continue to trust our offense, trust our program. I’m so happy to be at this program.”
The 6-11 Tobey, who missed five games last month with mononucleosis, also closed his first college season on a high note, contributing 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 22 minutes off the bench. The Cavaliers’ upperclassmen, though, were off their games.
Evans had four assists and two steals but failed to score. Junior swingman Joe Harris, a first-team All-ACC selection, scored only three of his 11 points in the second half and turned the ball over four times. Junior big man Akil Mitchell, a third-team All-ACC pick, scored six of his nine points in the final 1:28, after Iowa had built a commanding lead.
“Some of the first-year guys, certainly you look at Mike and Justin, they did some nice things for us in that game,” Bennett said. “But to beat a team like this, you needed to have the balance. I challenged [the team] at halftime to come out and play and embrace the physicality of this game, and they did for a bit, but I thought Iowa kept playing and playing, and we wore down.”
Harris didn’t attempt a shot in the second half until more than 11 minutes had passed. As had been the case in recent games, he bore little resemblance to the player who scored a career-high 36 points in UVa’s Feb. 28 win over Duke at JPJ.
Against the Blue Devils, Harris made 12 of 20 shots from the floor. In his final seven games, he was 27 for 82.
“Joe carried a big load all year,” Bennett said. “I think he looked worn down at the end and didn’t play his best basketball the last few games.”
Harris acknowledged that fatigue might have contributed to his late-season decline.
“It is a long year, and the way that we play and the minutes that some of us are playing, it has a tendency maybe to wear on you,” he said. “Just the way that we practice, it’s tough, and it challenges you mentally and physically. But I don’t think I would use that as an excuse.”
Of the players in Virginia’s rotation this season, only Evans is out of eligibility. Two well-regarded point guards — Devon Hall and London Perrantes — signed with the Cavaliers in November, and the 2013-14 team will also, in effect, add 6-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon and 6-8 forward Anthony Gill.
“There’s a lot to be excited about,” Mitchell said.
Brogdon, Virginia’s sixth man for most of the 2011-12 season, sat out this year while recovering from foot surgery. Gill is a transfer from the University of South Carolina, where he started 26 games in 2011-12. Each will be listed as a redshirt sophomore next season.
“We practice against Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill every day,” Harris said. “I’m assuming that both of them will make big contributions for us next year, and then the addition of our younger guys coming in, and guys like Justin, Tobey and the other freshmen we have this year, they’re all going to improve, and I think you’ll see more of a balanced attack next year.”
Virginia went into Selection Sunday hoping to earn a second straight at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers instead were awarded one of the four No. 1 seeds in the 32-team NIT.
Even though his team could not make it to The Garden, where Iowa will face Maryland in the second semifinal Tuesday night, Bennett believes the NIT experience will pay dividends for his returning players.
“To play in these settings, to play in a pressure setting, in a tournament, and to be able to win a couple games, I think was good,” Bennett said. “For our younger guys to play and to show the signs that they did in this setting was good.”
Even the loss to Iowa could help his program, Bennett said.
“Seeing a team that really got after us and played physical basketball and could last, we’ll learn from that without a doubt,” he said. “When you play against teams that are real tough, it’s kind of a gut-check, and you realize this is what it’s like in tournament basketball, desperately trying to advance to something significant, what you need to bring and how it has to be done. I think there’s some wisdom in that for us to motivate us to work really hard in the offseason.”
Anderson said: “I think our program is on the right [path]. I think we’re going up, and we just gotta continue to fight. We learned a huge lesson this year.”
Evans, who missed nine games this season because of his foot injury, made 92 starts during his UVa career and twice was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team. With 41 seconds left Wednesday, Evans checked out of his final college game and, with fans on their feet, hugged Bennett and the other coaches.
“It is bittersweet,” Evans said. “It is sad that this is my last time playing here, ever. It brings joy to my heart that the fans appreciate what I tried to bring to the program. This has been an unbelievable college experience. I could have not chosen a better school or coach to play for. I’m very thankful that I decided to play at UVa.”