By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — Outside Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, a throng of fans, friends and relatives waited for the UVa men’s basketball team to emerge Saturday afternoon. Former Virginia big man Ralph Sampson was there, too, as was future Virginia big man Isaiah Wilkins.
The Cavaliers’ head coach, Tony Bennett, was happy to let his players linger for a while before the bus ride to the airport. Nobody in blue and orange was in a hurry to leave the scene of UVa’s latest victory.
For 30 minutes Saturday, the ACC’s second-place team encountered significant resistance from upset-minded Georgia Tech. In the final 9:35, however, the 20th-ranked Wahoos went on a 22-1 run. The result for UVa was a 64-45 win that stunned the Yellow Jackets and their fans.
“It was really something to see that happen,” Bennett said.
Senior guard Joe Harris (11 points) started the spree with two free throws that made it 44-44 with 9:31 left. The Jackets’ lone point the rest of the way came on a free throw with 5:31 left.
That cut Georgia Tech’s deficit to six, but the Cavaliers scored on their next possession, redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon feeding senior big man Akil Mitchell for a dunk, and the rout was on. In the final five minutes, post players Darion Atkins and Anthony Gill scored six and four points, respectively.
“It kind of went by in a flash,” said Mitchell, who finished with eight points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. “We just decided to lock in, and we got a couple steals and a couple breakaways and things just started rolling, a couple dunks here and there, a couple tips, and they missed some shots. Before I knew it I looked up and we were up 15, and we just kept putting it on `em.”
The victory was the seventh straight for UVa (19-5, 10-1), whose only ACC defeat was a four-point loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Jackets 46-25 and held them to 36.7-percent accuracy from the floor.
“We played a really good team today that down the stretch made every play,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “I give them credit.”
The win assures Virginia of finishing above .500 in ACC play for the third consecutive season, a feat they have not accomplished since the 7-4 Sampson ruled the college game in the early ’80s. Moreover, the `Hoos are off to their best start in ACC play since 1981-82, when they won 12 of their first 13 games.
“When you go on the road, like here, it’s a war,” Bennett said. “I always say you have to have an edge on the road, and we were in a fight. We weren’t particularly playing well, but at the start Georgia Tech did a heck of a job. You just keep hanging in there and all of the sudden you have a run like that. Things happen, and we capitalized on it.”
Brogdon said: “It’s nice to know that we can be resilient and come back in the second half and really start to play our game, even though we struggled a little bit in the first half.”
The `Hoos finished 20-2 at John Paul Jones Arena in 2012-13, and they’re 11-2 at home this season. More impressive, perhaps, is their record in ACC road games: 5-1.
“To have had some past success is important,” Bennett said. “Any time you do something and it goes well, it validates how you need to play the next time out. We were a little shaky early, but I think our guys re-established the formula for us and what we needed to do. Again, we were fortunate, and we played a team that was not hitting on all cylinders. I think they’re going to be solid as they get themselves healthy.”
Injuries have battered the Jackets this season. Two key players returned for Tech on Saturday — senior guard Trae Golden (hamstring) and sophomore big man Robert Carter Jr. (knee) — but neither was especially effective.
Still, the Jackets led 30-29 at halftime, largely because of sophomore guard Chris Bolden. Bolden entered the game averaging 5.2 points and shooting 29.2 percent from 3-point range, but nobody who watched his first half Saturday would have guessed that.
Bolden made 3 of 4 attempts from beyond the arc, each one against solid defense, and scored 11 points in the first half.
“We knew that he wasn’t going to be able to hit those shots through the whole game,” Gill said. “But then in the second half when he came out and had that [opportunity for a three-point play], we were like, `Oh, man, this is about to be a long game.’ But then he eventually calmed down, and we knew that our defense was going to pay off in the end.”
Bolden scored only two points in the second half. The Jackets’ senior center, 6-11, 275-pound Daniel Miller, had his ups and downs as well. Miller totaled nine points, seven rebounds and six blocked shots, but he turned the ball over four times and fouled out with 2:36 remaining.
One of Miller’s mistakes proved especially costly for the Jackets. With UVa leading 46-44, Miller found himself double-teamed in the post, and he forced a pass that Brogdon stole. Brogdon dribbled in for a dunk, and Gregory called his penultimate timeout.
It failed to slow the Cavaliers. Miller missed a jump-hook on Georgia Tech’s next possession, and then freshman point guard London Perrantes fed Harris for a 3-pointer that made it 51-44 with 6:10 remaining.
“I think that was the dagger,” Bennett said.
After hitting two treys in the first five minutes Saturday, Harris showed a puzzling reluctance to shoot from the outside. He didn’t attempt another 3-pointer until more than eight minutes had passed in the second half.
“I just felt like two guys were coming at me, so I was just trying to kick it down [into the post],” Harris said. “But then everybody was like, `What are you doing?’ Everyone was getting on me for passing up shots. I wasn’t even thinking about it like that. I thought that their guys were just coming at me pretty hard. But in the second half there were a couple times when I should have just shot it instead of trying to kick it down.”
Harris “lets it come,” Bennett said, “he really does, and I marvel at that. But again, sometimes you want him to look for [shots].”
UVa has a strong alumni presence in the Atlanta area, and the crowd included many orange-clad fans. Mike Scott, a second-year forward with the Atlanta Hawks, was also there to root for his former team, and the Cavaliers were delighted to have such strong support on the road.
“We were warming up, and people were cheering and taking pictures and stuff like that,” said Gill, who came off the bench to contribute 11 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes. “I was like, `Wow, I didn’t know we traveled this well.’ ”
UVa’s roster includes two players from the Atlanta area — Brogdon and sophomore forward Evan Nolte — and each had a large cheering section Saturday. Nolte logged only four minutes, but Brogdon played a game-high 34 and posted his second straight double-double (and second of his UVa career), finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, one steal and no turnovers.
On an afternoon Virginia went 17 for 19 from the line — Georgia Tech, by contrast, was 3 for 13 — Brogdon made all seven of his free throws. He redshirted last season while recovering from a foot injury, so this marked his first game in Atlanta since January 2012.
“We didn’t talk about that,” Bennett said, “but when you go back to your hometown, where you played grade school and high school ball, it’s a big deal. Your family’s there.”
Brogdon, who matched his career high in rebounds Saturday, has scored at least 10 points in each of his past 11 games.
“To have the success he’s having,” Bennett said, “I know it’s very gratifying for his family and for him, and for him to be able to come back here and finish strong.”
For the `Hoos, it was gratifying to come away with a convincing victory in a game in which they weren’t at their best for long stretches. Starting center Mike Tobey made only 1 of 6 shots from the floor, but Gill and Atkins (eight points, four rebounds) sparkled off the bench.
Virginia has plenty “to work on and get better at,” Mitchell said, “but to be able to — I don’t want to say just turn it on — but kind of be able to find ourselves, while they’re hitting shots and we’re struggling a little bit, means a lot.”
The 22-1 run “was really fun,” Gill said. “At first it was tough just to get everybody going, but in the second half you saw that we really picked it up.”
UP NEXT: UVa returns home to play Maryland (14-10, 6-5) in their final meeting at JPJ as ACC rivals.
The starting time for the game, originally set for 7 p.m. Monday, has been pushed back to 9 p.m. to lessen the impact on fans of President Obama’s visit to Monticello that afternoon. That visit is expected to create traffic problems in the Charlottesville area. Also, ESPNU will carry the game now, not ESPN.
Maryland struggled early in ACC play but has won three of its past four games. The Terrapins got 32 points from sophomore guard Seth Allen and defeated Florida State 83-71 in College Park on Saturday afternoon.
UVa is seeking its sixth straight victory over Maryland, which leads the series 106-73.