By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa men’s basketball players will start to scatter late Monday night, heading home to celebrate Christmas with their families. Another victory will ensure they leave town filled with holiday cheer.
Coming out of final exams, the Cavaliers had two main goals to accomplish before their late-December break. They wanted to defeat Northern Iowa, a team coming off a win over VCU, and they wanted to defeat Norfolk State.
The Wahoos are halfway there. On Saturday, Virginia grinded out a 57-43 win over Northern Iowa at John Paul Jones Arena. The `Hoos (8-3) will be back at home Monday night for a 7 o’clock game against Norfolk State (8-4).
A season ago, in its final game before Christmas, UVa suffered a calamitous defeat at the Richmond Coliseum, losing to an Old Dominion team that entered the game with a 1-10 record.
“We know how badly that hurt us,” Virginia senior guard Joe Harris said Saturday night at JPJ, “especially down the stretch of the season, when the [NCAA tournament] selection committee is looking at bad losses and that sort of thing. We didn’t finish well going into the break last year. It was almost like we were just ready to get home and put basketball aside. We weren’t locked in, and we didn’t come out and play well at all.”
Only one freshman — guard London Perrantes — is playing for UVa this season, and “I don’t think a whole lot needs to be said [to the veterans],” Harris said. “I think everybody remembers that feeling, and the coaches are not going to let us forget that, either. But I’m one of the more experienced guys on the team, and as a leader of the team I’ll be sure to make sure everyone’s locked in and focused and ready to go for our game Monday.”
The Cavaliers took the court Saturday not having played since Dec. 7, when they lost at Green Bay.
“We were rusty,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said.
Northern Iowa was no sharper. With 6:48 left in the half, the teams were a combined 7 for 39 from the floor and had scored 17 points between them. But then three straight 3-pointers dropped for the Cavaliers — the first by sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, the second by Perrantes and the third by sophomore swingman Justin Anderson — and at the break Bennett’s team led 21-16.
“I thought even though we started slow offensively, we did a nice job on the defensive end, and that’s what kept us in there,” Harris said. “It kind of remained the same in the second half. It was just a matter of us being continuous offensively and having the belief that the shots were going to come and we were going to start knocking down some stuff and get things going.”
Virginia led by double digits for much of the second half. Northern Iowa pulled to 42-35 with 6:52 to play, but Harris passed to Brogdon for a trey that made it a 10-point game, and the `Hoos weren’t seriously threatened thereafter.
“I thought the second half we played better on both ends of the floor,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers’ fifth-year coach shook up his lineup Saturday, starting the 6-6 Anderson and 6-8 junior Darion Atkins alongside Harris, Brogdon and 6-8 senior Akil Mitchell. For Atkins, the start was his first of the season. Anderson hadn’t started since Nov. 12, when UVa lost to VCU at JPJ.
“That’s our most experienced team,” said Bennett, but he didn’t stick with the lineup for long Saturday. At the 15:08 mark of the first half, Bennett substituted Perrantes for Mitchell and moved Anderson to power forward.
Early on, Bennett said, he thought the Cavaliers “looked really disconnected, and that’s where I said we’re not getting a lot with our traditional size lineup.”
Anderson, who played at the 4 periodically as a freshman, looked comfortable doing whatever Bennett asked of him Saturday. He finished with a game-high 16 points and added four rebounds, three assists and two momentum-changing blocked shots against the Panthers (5-6).
“Coming into the game we thought he was one of the keys to their team in many ways with his energy and his ability to get points in a hurry,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “He’s played well for them, and today he was the guy that was key.”
Harris said: “I thought Justin just did a good job being aggressive. Whether it was him trying to create for himself or for his teammates, he seemed like he was locked in and ready to go from the start.”
Bennett’s decision to use a four-guard lineup for long stretches Saturday meant reduced roles for two members of the Cavaliers’ frontcourt rotation, 6-8 sophomore Anthony Gill and 6-11 sophomore Mike Tobey, who played eight and five minutes, respectively.
The smaller lineup, Bennett said, allowed the Cavaliers to better match up with the Panthers.
“There’ll be games like that,” Bennett said. “There’ll be other games where we have to use more of our size.”
Virginia had a height advantage Saturday, Bennett noted, but “I just didn’t feel we were able to exploit it the way we needed to offensively. And then on the defensive end I felt like it was important that we could match them, because they really spread the floor, though obviously they did not shoot it well.”
Anderson played a team-high 35 minutes Saturday. Harris played 34, Perrantes 33 and Brogdon 32. Harris contributed 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. Brogdon didn’t have his best game but still finished with eight points and seven boards, and Perrantes chipped in nine points and five assists.
“I thought we did a good job moving without the ball, screening, being unselfish for one another, cutting hard,” Harris said. “I liked it. I thought we had some good action, and we did a good job offensively when there were four guards out there.”
Atkins, who started 12 games last season, helped Virginia end its two-game losing streak. In his 23 minutes, he scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked a career-best five shots.
“Coach Bennett gave me a chance,” Atkins said. “He told me in practice he wanted to go with a more aggressive lineup that was more experienced. I said, OK. I was really excited tonight, and I played with confidence, and I feel like it showed on the court … It motivates me in the right way, a positive way, and hopefully I can continue to have games like this and keep my spot.”
In the second half, Anderson twice soared to reject a layup attempt by a Northern Iowa player, and each time UVa capitalized by scoring at the other end. For the game, Northern Iowa shot only 31.7 percent from the floor.
“Maybe your defense breaks down a little bit,” Bennett said, “but when you have [Atkins and Anderson] back there … that cleans up some things, mistakes you make. And that’s huge. And then when those turn into a transition basket, that was very timely for us.”
Asked about his blocks, Anderson said his high school coach “used to say that those are game-changers. It’s almost like a charge. It’s almost like somebody diving on the floor, saving the ball. It’s one of those hustle plays … You’re not always going to get those, and I think that gets the crowd into it, that gets our team into it, and that gets us back on offense and getting a good shot.”
Anderson checked out of the game with 36.5 seconds left, exiting to a warm ovation from the crowd.
The loss to Green Bay, Anderson said, left “a bad taste in our mouth, and it was good to get it out.”
Now comes a Monday night date with Norfolk State, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference power whose 2012-13 season ended with a loss to UVa in a first-round NIT game at JPJ.
“Quick turnaround,” Bennett said. “We gotta be ready.”
By the time UVa and UNI tipped off Saturday, Boston University had upended Maryland in College Park. Later that day, Davidson would take North Carolina to overtime before losing in Chapel Hill.
“You’re going to have to show up and produce, or you’ll be in trouble,” Bennett said. “College basketball’s showing that.”