By Jeff White (email@example.com)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The plane ride home from Florida was bumpy at times, but that didn’t seem to bother the passengers. It would have taken more than a little turbulence to dampen the mood of the UVa men’s basketball team Saturday night.
Improbable victories are often the most satisfying, and the Cavaliers picked up a memorable one in their ACC opener.
In an arena where they hadn’t won since Feb. 17, 2001, the Wahoos lost All-ACC guard Joe Harris 143 seconds into the game. Unfazed, they carried on.
“With him going down, we all joined together and said we’re playing for Joey right now,” sophomore swingman Justin Anderson said.
Virginia never trailed Saturday in a 62-50 win over Florida State before a disbelieving crowd of 5,588 at the Donald L. Tucker Center and an ESPN2 audience around the country.
With Harris sidelined by concussion symptoms, the Cavaliers (10-4) shot poorly from the floor (32.8 percent) and missed 15 of 33 free throws. But they played inspired defense, turned the ball over only six times, forced 16 turnovers, and outrebounded the Seminoles, perhaps the nation’s tallest team, 41-38.
“To do that without Joe was significant,” said Tony Bennett, UVa’s fifth-year coach, whose record in ACC openers is now 5-0. “I think we left a lot of points out there, but we came away with it, we finished it, and that’s the deal.”
This was not just another win for the `Hoos. They were coming off an embarrassing loss to Tennessee, which never trailed in an 87-52 rout Monday night in Knoxville. Moreover, Virginia had lost 10 straight games in Tallahassee and 17 straight in the Sunshine State.
“Streaks are made to be broken,” Bennett said, “so that’s a good one to win.”
Redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said, “I think it’s huge for us. Coming off the Tennessee loss, bouncing back on the road against a good opponent is huge for our morale, and also knowing that we can play without Joe, even though he’s our best scorer and we really need him for the rest of the season. It just gives us more confidence.”
A senior from Chelan, Wash., Harris was injured on defense, trying to fight through a pick. First his head collided with teammate Mike Tobey’s elbow. That blow knocked Harris to the floor, where teammate Akil Mitchell’s knee struck Harris’ head.
Harris tried to keep playing, but on Virginia’s next possession, it became clear that he wasn’t himself, and play was stopped at the 17:37 mark.
“I can’t see anything,” Harris told an official before proceeding to UVa’s bench, where veteran athletic trainer Ethan Saliba tested him for a concussion. At halftime, Bennett said, Harris told him he felt fine, but protocol prevents a player who shows his symptoms from returning to a game.
“The rules are now if you get hit in the head and you can’t do something on a test, they gotta hold you [out],” Bennett said.
Saliba, whom Bennett later called one of the team’s MVPs, stayed busy Saturday evening. Sophomore center Mike Tobey suffered an ankle injury five minutes into the game — he later returned — and sophomore forward Evan Nolte dislocated a finger on his left hand about eight minutes into the second half.
With most of the Cavaliers’ other big men in serious foul trouble, the 6-8 Nolte checked back into the game at the 6:03 mark, the pinky and ring finger on his non-shooting hand taped together. He promptly buried a 3-pointer from the left wing on an inbounds play to stretch Virginia’s lead to 51-37.
“That was beautiful,” Bennett said, “and he smiled, too, when he did it.”
Virginia allowed only 17 points in the first half and led by 13 at the break. That FSU (9-4, 0-1) would make a run seemed inevitable, but the Cavaliers continued to play well in the second half, and with 11:04 left, a dunk by junior big man Darion Atkins off a slick pass from Anderson made it 45-23.
Florida State rallied late and cut its deficit to seven on an Okaro White 3-pointer with 2:52 left, but Virginia made just enough free throws to come away with the victory.
Bennett, gracious in victory, noted that the `Noles “didn’t play their best basketball. They were a little out of sorts.”
He smiled. “They probably watched the tape of our Tennessee game. They saw it and said, `This will be OK.’ And so they were a little out of it. That happens. It does. That’s a talented, well-coached team. So when you come in here and you get one on the road … it’s significant.”
Anderson came off the bench to score a game-high 16 points in 33 minutes, and he also had four assists. At the other end, Anderson helped the `Hoos hold FSU to 30.8-percent accuracy from the floor.
The team prepared well during the week — Bennett singled out the Cavaliers’ reserves and walk-ons for their effort in practice — and it carried over when the game began Saturday evening. Freshman point guard London Perrantes hit two 3-pointers to help UVa build an 11-3 lead. Most impressive, though, was Virginia’s palpable intensity when FSU had the ball.
“Once we got out there [on the court], you could feel a defensive buzz,” Anderson said. “You can feel us flying around, you can feel us locking in on the defensive end.
“That’s huge. That’s who we are, and I think we’re getting back to who we are.”
Inconsistency marked the Cavaliers’ play in their 13 non-conference games. Heading into ACC play, Bennett said, he urged his players to “establish what we’re about. That was really important for us after how we played against Tennessee, to come out [and play hard]. Now, will I assume that that’s going to be there every night? I can’t. But we at least took a step in the right direction.”
By halftime Saturday, Perrantes had 10 points, a career high, and he finished with 14. He also had three assists, one steal and, perhaps most important, no turnovers.
“He was very poised,” Bennett said, “and his ability to play without a turnover against [Florida State’s] length, athleticism, was impressive. He found some people and for the most part guarded well … Great start for him for his first ACC game.”
Perrantes, who’s from Los Angeles, came into the game shooting only 26.9 percent from 3-point range. But he showed in high school, and has shown repeatedly in UVa practices, that he has excellent touch from long range. Against the `Noles, he was 3 for 5 from beyond the arc.
“I felt like I was thinking about it too much earlier in the season,” Perrantes said, “but now I’m just starting to get in a rhythm and starting to just play basketball like I should be. Seeing shots go in the hole is definitely a confidence-booster, and my team has faith in me, Coach Bennett has faith, all the coaches have faith, so I’m just going to keep shooting the ball and see what happens.”
Other standouts for Virginia included Brogdon and Mitchell. In his previous five games, the 6-5 Brogdon was a combined 9 for 41 from the floor, and against Tennessee he went scoreless for the first time in his college career.
Brogdon made only 3 of 10 field-goal attempts Saturday, but he was 5 for 6 from the line, grabbed six rebounds and turned the ball over only once. He came into the game with a team-high 27 turnovers.
“It wasn’t a great game for me, but I thought it was a decent game,” Brogdon said. “Definitely I feel like I came out of my slump a little bit. I’m back to playing my type of basketball, and I have a great support system in terms of my coaches and teammates to help me do that.”
The 6-8 Mitchell routinely posted double-doubles in 2012-13, when he was named to the All-ACC third team. He recorded the first of his senior season Saturday, finishing with 11 points and 13 rebounds against a team whose starters include 6-7 Montay Brandon, the 6-9 White, 6-9 Robert Gilchrist and 7-3 Boris Bojanovsky.
“They’re a big, physical team,” Mitchell said. “I just had to fight my butt off all night. To finally pull down some rebounds, to snatch them against guys like that, against guys at Tennessee who are big and physical, is especially rewarding. But I knew that’s what I had to for us to be successful.”
Mitchell grabbed five of UVa’s 17 offensive rebounds. “He was a warrior,” Bennett said.
After displaying textbook form on his first three free throws, all of which dropped through, Mitchell missed his final seven. That concerns Bennett, but he found no fault with Mitchell’s effort Saturday.
“Did he compete, did he guard, did he get on the glass, was he fierce both offensively and defensively?” Bennett asked rhetorically. “That’s Akil: run the floor, guard, rebound, get people open, finish, and he showed it.
“When our team stays in its lane, it gives us the best chance to be successful, for guys individually and our team. And I was so proud of him to come out with that kind of heart, because he’s wired in the right way with regards to that.”
Mitchell, who made nearly 70 percent of his free throws last season, is 26 for 57 (46.5 percent) this season. He broke his shooting hand in early July at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas and hasn’t been the same offensively since recovering from surgery.
“It’s a mental thing at this point,” Mitchell said. “Free throws are nothing but your mindset going into it, so I just gotta find a good rhythm and get back in the gym and work on it.”
Asked about his team’s woes from the line, Bennett shook his head and said, “I don’t know what to tell you.” The Cavaliers shot hundreds of free throws leading up to the Tallahassee trip, he said, and will continue to do so.
UVa and FSU will meet again Jan. 18, in Charlottesville. The `Hoos expect to have Harris back before then. To have won without him in Tallahassee was no small feat.
“I don’t want to make too much of it, but the guys showed heart,” Bennett said. “They battled.”
OFF THE ROAD: Of Virginia’s first four conference games, only one is at John Paul Jones Arena. Wake Forest visits JPJ for a 7 p.m. game Wednesday.
Wake (10-3) opens ACC play Sunday night against No. 19 North Carolina (10-3) in Winston-Salem.
After hosting the Demon Deacons, the Cavaliers will play two straight road games: Jan. 11 at NC State and Jan. 13 at No. 7 Duke.