Jan. 7, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Saturday evening in Tallahassee, Fla., reserve forward Evan Nolte dislocated his left pinky about eight minutes into the second half of UVa’s basketball game with Florida State.

Some 24 hours later, Nolte, watching on TV, saw his beloved Green Bay Packers knocked out of the NFL playoffs. So which blow hurt more?

“The loss, definitely,” Nolte said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.

A 6-8, 227-pound sophomore from the Atlanta suburb of Milton, Ga., Nolte didn’t let his injury derail him Saturday. After a member of FSU’s medical staff popped the bone back into place, UVa athletic trainer Ethan Saliba taped Nolte’s pinky and ring finger together.

With 6:03 to play, the right-handed Nolte checked back into the game. Moments later, he buried a 3-pointer from the left wing, stretching Virginia’s lead to 51-37. As Nolte ran back on defense, his emotions were easy to read.

“I couldn’t stop smiling,” he said.

The Cavaliers went on to defeat FSU 62-50 — their first victory in Tallahassee since 2001 — and Nolte’s contribution proved crucial. UVa lost All-ACC guard Joe Harris to a concussion early in the first half, and big men Mike Tobey, Akil Mitchell and Anthony Gill would each finish the game with four fouls.

Nolte hit a 3-pointer in each half to help Virginia (10-4, 1-0) pick up a much-needed win heading into its ACC home opener. UVa hosts Wake Forest (11-3, 1-0) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at JPJ.

Going forward, Tony Bennett joked on the ACC coaches’ teleconference Monday, “I think we’re just going to sub him out, dislocate his finger, pop it back in and say, `OK, go back in and bang a 3.’ That part was impressive.”

When Nolte got hurt, Bennett wasn’t sure he’d be able to return to the game. “Then for him to come back in and stick a big 3, that was great,” Bennett said. “And he showed some toughness. You pop your finger back in and go out and play. I like that.”

As a freshman, Nolte averaged 19.8 minutes per game and delivered several memorable performances. In a win at Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Nolte, who was born in Milwaukee, totaled eight points and three rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench and fueled the Cavaliers’ comeback at the Kohl Center.

Against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, he made five 3-pointers in UVa’s 74-58 win.

The Wahoos, however, had fewer frontcourt options in 2012-13, when Nolte was used primarily as an outside-shooting power forward, a position commonly called a stretch-4. With four traditional post players available this season — Tobey, Mitchell, Gill and Darion Atkins — Bennett has played Nolte mostly at small forward, also known as the 3.

“Evan is a smart player,” Bennett said. “He’s figuring out how to work in that spot, but he is a threat from outside. He understands positioning defensively, and his mind for the game is one of his assets, one of his strong points, and I think that’s where he helps us.”

Nolte sank three treys and scored a season-high 12 points Nov. 29 in Virginia’s victory over a talented SMU team in the Corpus Christi Challenge. Heading into the Christmas break, however, Nolte was unhappy with his play.

“I felt I hadn’t been playing as aggressively off the bench as I did last year,” he said.

On the team’s flight to Knoxville, Tenn., on Dec. 29, Nolte said, he watched videotape from his freshman season and “saw how much energy I had,” and he wanted to duplicate that aggressiveness. The next night, Tennessee humbled Virginia 87-52 at Thompson-Boling Arena, but Nolte made the most of his 10 minutes, scoring seven points, all in the second half.

“It was a terrible loss, which is more important,” Nolte said, “but I wanted to go into the Florida State game ready, and that helped me be more aggressive.”

Nolte averaged 5.7 points and 2.4 rebounds as a freshman. His numbers are down this season — he’s averaging 3.3 points and 0.5 rebounds — in part because he’s been playing only 10 minutes per game.

“I think I’m well-suited [to small forward], but I feel I have a long way to go,” Nolte said. “It’s definitely been an adjustment.”

Nolte started eight games in 2012-13, but he’s not one to grumble about his new role. As his coaches point out, he has bought in completely to the team concept at UVa.

“I don’t mind coming off the bench,” Nolte said.

That attitude isn’t always the norm in sports today. But “that to me is the point of being part of a team: realizing that people have different skill sets and putting personal agendas aside,” Nolte said.

“If everybody does their part, especially on this team, we have a really good shot of doing well in ACC play and the postseason.”

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