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Dec. 24, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett saw a lot he liked in his team’s two most recent games, wins over Northern Iowa and Norfolk State, but he knows it can play better.

“We’re still searching a little bit,” UVa’s fifth-year men’s basketball coach said Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena.

The Cavaliers, who rank second nationally in scoring defense (54.2 points per game), head into the holiday break at 9-3. They had the same record at this point last year, too, but the seasons have unfolded much differently.

In 2012-13, UVa’s early losses were to George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion, teams whose combined record heading into Christmas was 13-22.

The Wahoos’ losses this season have been to VCU, Wisconsin and Green Bay. Those teams are a combined 30-6, and Wisconsin is ranked No. 4 in the latest Associated Press poll.

“Probably what’s different about this team … is we’ve won some games not playing our best basketball, where we’ve had different guys struggle,” Bennett said, “and I think that’s where the depth helps.”

Such was the case again Monday night at JPJ, where Virginia defeated Norfolk State 66-56. The `Hoos got 25 points from their bench, which on this night consisted of big men Akil Mitchell, Anthony Gill, and Mike Tobey, forward Evan Nolte and guard Teven Jones.

Mitchell, who had started UVa’s previous 61 games, contributed eight points, seven rebounds and two steals in his 20 minutes. Gill finished with seven points, all in the second half. Jones added four points and applied much-needed defensive pressure, and Tobey and Nolte scored three apiece.

“That was important,” Bennett said of his reserves’ play. “I was really impressed. I didn’t use Anthony in the first half … [but] you could hear him cheering [on the bench], and then he came in ready and gave us a great lift. I thought Akil really played within himself, gave us a nice lift. Teven, his quickness helped us. He guarded the ball.

“That Norfolk State team is very capable. They’re hard to guard. They’re quick off the bounce. They exploited us in the first half.”

The game matched teams that met in the NIT’s second round at JPJ last season. UVa pulled away late to win that one 67-56, and Norfolk State never led Monday night. But the Spartans (8-5) have depth and quickness, along with a capable big man in 7-0 senior Brandon Goode, and they posed problems for Virginia.

A stickback by Mitchell at the end of the first half gave Virginia a 32-36 lead. The first 2:20 of the second half, however, was a disaster for the `Hoos, who turned the ball over four times. The Spartans capitalized on those mistakes to pull even at 32-32, and an irate Bennett called a timeout at the 17:37 mark.

“He was fired up, but we all were,” Mitchell said. “That’s not us. That’s not how we play basketball. We know we’re better than that, and we know we can be better than that. So for us to start the second half like that is unacceptable.”

Virginia finished with 12 turnovers Monday. For the season, the Cavaliers have as many turnovers as assists — 155 in each category — and that’s uncharacteristic of a Bennett-coached team. UVa finished last season, for example, with 491 assists and 391 turnovers.

“Too many easy, lackadaisical turnovers,” freshman guard London Perrantes said Monday night. “We’ve got to cut down on those if we want to be good.”

Sophomore swingman Justin Anderson had three turnovers Monday, and senior guard Joe Harris and redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon had two apiece. Brogdon’s second giveaway, with UVa ahead 57-47, came on a careless pass. Bennett, visibly angry, called a timeout with 1:07 to play and let Brogdon know such sloppiness would not be tolerated.

Some of his players’ late-game mistakes “almost don’t make sense,” Bennett said later. “I said there’s got to be some accountability for that, and that drove me crazy, I’ll be honest with you, watching us flip the ball up. Sometimes it looks like we’re sleepwalking out there, and it can’t be that way. But we can clean that up, and we’ll have to.”

Anderson led the Cavaliers with 14 points. Harris finished with 12 and made 6 of 7 shots from the line, where he has been struggling this season. His accuracy was one of many encouraging signs for a team whose next game is Dec. 30 at Tennessee (7-4). UVa won’t play at JPJ again until Jan. 8, when Wake Forest visits for an ACC game.

“I think it’s there,” Bennett said when asked about his team’s potential. “We just gotta keep coming. We’ll have to improve to compete in our league.”

Mitchell said: “We’ve still got a lot of things to shore up, and I think as the season goes on we’ll get better.”

This is by the far the deepest team Bennett has had at UVa, where his record is 85-56. Even with freshman guard Devon Hall redshirting, Virginia has 10 scholarship players who have shown the ability to contribute at this level, and finding time for them all has proved challenging for Bennett.

A shorter, quicker lineup helped Virginia defeat Northern Iowa on Saturday, and Bennett started four perimeter players (Harris, Brogdon, Anderson and Perrantes) alongside 6-8 junior Darion Atkins on Monday night. That meant Mitchell, a third-team All-ACC selection in 2012-13, would come off the bench for the first time since the midpoint of his sophomore season.

“I’ve been struggling lately, and it’s something every player goes through, but it’s nothing that bothers me too much,” Mitchell said. “I’m still rooting for my teammates, and when I get in, I just care about winning.”

Bennett said Mitchell “reacted how I wanted. He played well. He played how he needed to play. He stayed within himself, gave us a great lift. Defended. Rebounded. Tried to finish. We’ll keep working on the free-throw line” — Mitchell missed 4 of 6 foul shots — “but that’s what matters, how you respond.”

Gill’s attitude impressed Bennett, too. A transfer from South Carolina, Gill averaged 9.2 points and shot 67.2 percent from the floor in Virginia’s first 11 games. He’s been prone to defensive lapses, though, and Bennett went into the Norfolk State game looking to shorten the frontcourt rotation.

In the first half, Gill would have rather been playing, but he made his voice heard from the bench.

“I cheer for my brothers when they’re on the court, and that’s what I wanted to do,” Gill said. “I want to make them feel good. Even though I’m not playing, I want to let them know I’m there with them.”

Bennett said he has confidence in all of his players, and Virginia’s lineups will vary, depending on the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

“Everybody wants to play,” Bennett said. “We have solid young men. We do, and they have good character. Are they competitive, do they want to play, is it discouraging, is it frustrating, does sometimes their body language show when they’re not playing or they’re sitting out? Yeah. But I could hear Anthony in my ear, and I’m not saying that’s why I put him in the second half, but I loved that.

`I just tell them, `You’ve got a responsibility to put the team above yourself, and it’s OK to be frustrated. Tell your girlfriend about it, talk to your friends about it, whatever it is. But when you step between the lines for practice or the games, you’ve got to give great effort and do whatever you can do to help the team and just keep working.’ “

Of the Cavaliers’ scholarship players, only three are upperclassmen: Harris, Mitchell and Atkins. “So many of them are sophomores, and [playing time is] going to come and go,” Bennett said. “As I said, it’s a moving target. That’s the challenge, but because of their character and their wanting to win, there haven’t been any major problems. Frustration? Yeah. That’s normal. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I can see that sometimes, but that’s part of it. I think every coach deals with that, and if you have depth like this, probably a little more.”

UVa’s players scattered late Monday night, eager to see their families. They’ll reconvene Friday at JPJ for practice. After traveling to Knoxville, Tenn., for their final non-conference game, the Cavaliers will open ACC play Jan. 4 at Florida State.

A team picked to finish fourth in the ACC has stumbled at times in the early going, but the Cavaliers remain convinced their problems can be corrected.

“Most definitely,” Gill said. “I feel like we haven’t even come close to where our potential is.”

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