By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa basketball players Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris came into the season knowing at least 17 more games at John Paul Jones Arena awaited them. Now, in the final month of the regular season, the end is nearing for the two remaining members of head coach Tony Bennett’s first recruiting class at Virginia.
The Cavaliers (19-5, 10-1), ranked No. 20 in The Associated Press poll, have only four games left at JPJ. The final stretch begins Monday at 9 p.m. against Maryland (14-10, 6-5).
“It just makes you look back,” Harris said Sunday afternoon. “You remember all the good times that you’ve had here playing in this building and playing in front of these fans, and you’re just thankful and grateful that you’ve gotten an opportunity to be here and had a chance to play in front of such a great fan base. I’m going to cherish and be very appreciative of every last game that we have here.”
The Wahoos have won 31 of their past 35 games at JPJ, including 14 straight against ACC opponents. That run includes an 61-58 overtime win over Maryland at JPJ on March 10, 2013.
The longtime rivals will close the regular season against each other this year, too, March 9 in College Park, Md. Monday’s game will be the last in Charlottesville between these teams as ACC foes. Maryland is joining the Big Ten this summer.
Harris and Mitchell were freshmen on the UVa team that lost 66-42 to Maryland at JPJ on Jan. 27, 2011. Since then, the `Hoos have won five straight over the Terps. A victory Monday night would give Virginia its first six-game winning streak in a series that began Jan. 24, 1913.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Harris said of facing the Terps twice each season. “Ever since I’ve been here, it’s felt like there might be even more of a rivalry between us and Maryland from a basketball standpoint than us and [Virginia] Tech. I’ve always looked forward to these games, and it’s always a lot of fun for our fans and for us to play in them.”
Uneven play has marked Maryland’s third season under head coach Mark Turgeon. After winning their first two ACC games, the Terps dropped four of their next five. Since then, however, they’ve won three of four, and they’re coming off an 83-71 victory over Florida State in which guard Seth Allen, a sophomore from Woodbridge who missed the first 12 games of the season with a foot injury, hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 32 points at Comcast Center.
Five players are averaging at least 9.8 points each for Maryland, led by junior swingman Dez Wells (15.2). Before his outburst Saturday, Allen was the Terrapins’ fourth-leading scorer.
“They’re definitely a dangerous offensive team,” Harris said.
Maryland’s other weapons include 6-8 sophomore Jake Layman (12.3 ppg) and 6-9 junior Evan Smotrycz (11.4 ppg), who have made 48 and 43 treys, respectively, and 6-6 junior Nick Faust (9.8 ppg).
“I think they’re a lot like we were early in the year, just trying to find the chemistry,” said assistant coach Jason Williford, who prepared Virginia’s scouting report on the Terrapins.
“They got a lot of offensive firepower, a lot of depth. With Allen coming back, guys were trying to figure out their roles. But from an offensive standpoint, they’re as good as anybody in our league. And they’re starting to play some good defense. They battled FSU [on Saturday], and Seth Allen was unbelievable.
“We gotta be ready. They present a lot of problems offensively for us.”
Virginia has multiple options on offense, too, among them redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon (12.1 ppg), Harris (11.3), sophomore swingman Justin Anderson (9.5 ppg) and redshirt sophomore big man Anthony Gill (7.8 ppg). Still, the foundation of Bennett’s program remains his Pack Line defense. The Cavaliers lead the nation in scoring defense (55.6 ppg), and opponents are shooting only 38.1 percent from the floor against them.
UVa stretched its winning streak to seven games Saturday in Atlanta with a 64-45 victory over Georgia Tech. The `Hoos allowed only one point in the final 9:50.
“My second year, I thought we had a better defensive team than we did last year, but we didn’t really have the size, the length, the athleticism that we have now,” Harris said. “We have so much more depth now, too, and we have guys that come off the bench that are not only capable offensively but are great defensive players, too, and everyone’s just kind of bought into this mindset that we are a defensive-minded team. That’s our focal point. That’s what we’re hanging our hat on, that’s what’s going to win us games, and I think because we take so much pride in our defense that makes us that much better.”
After practice Sunday afternoon, the Cavaliers watched video of Maryland, but the coaching staff has been careful not to overload the players with information on such a short turnaround.
“There’s certain things we’re going to do defensively that we always do every game,” Williford said. “You just need them to have fuel in the tank. Coach Bennett says that all the time: Be mentally sharp, but be ready physically to go. So transition defense is going to be huge, keeping them off the glass, the same stuff we always harp on that. All that’s going to be huge.”
Against Georgia Tech, Virginia’s starting center, 6-11 sophomore Mike Tobey, scored only two points, on 1-for-6 shooting. But the Cavaliers’ other post players — the 6-8 Mitchell, the 6-8 Gill and 6-8 junior Darion Atkins — combined for 27 points and 18 rebounds.
“All of our bigs are highly capable of playing and coming in without us losing anything,” Gill said Saturday in Atlanta.
Equally impressive at McCamish Pavilion was the free-throw shooting of Gill and Atkins, who came in shooting 59.5 and 48.1 percent from the line, respectively. Between them they hit 7 of 8 foul shots.
“We needed `em,” Bennett said after the game. “We really did.”
If fatigue hits the Cavaliers on Monday night, they may need a boost from the home crowd. The `Hoos are delighted that their fourth game in nine days is at JPJ and not on the road.
“No question,” Williford said. “We can get energy from the crowd, the baskets are familiar, we’re shooting at home. It makes a huge difference. At some point everybody goes through a stretch like this, but being at home is huge.”
The starting time for the game, originally set for 7, was changed to 9 p.m. to make it easier for fans to get to JPJ. President Obama and France’s president, Francois Hollande, are coming to Charlottesville on Monday afternoon to tour Monticello, and traffic in the area will be affected during their visit.
“I guess we’ll let it slide,” Harris said, smiling, “since it’s the president and he’s hosting the president of France.”
The late start doesn’t concern UVa’s coaching staff, Williford said. “Actually I think it helps us a little bit, gives the guys a little more rest. We just gotta be ready to play. If we played it at 3 o’clock, 7 o’clock or 9 o’clock, it wouldn’t matter. We just gotta be ready to go.”