By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Four trips to Cassell Coliseum. Four victories.
“It feels good not to have to come back here,” Mitchell said with a tired smile after grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds Tuesday night. “This is a tough place to play.”
The Cavaliers, ranked No. 13 in the USA Today coaches poll, edged the Hokies 57-53 to sweep the rivals’ regular-season series. UVa, the ACC’s second-place team, was expected to defeat the last-place Hokies, so the outcome wasn’t surprising. But nothing came easily for the Wahoos (22-5, 13-1) in their fifth straight victory over Tech (9-16, 2-11).
“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose team has won 10 consecutive games, all in the ACC, since a four-point loss at Duke on Jan. 13.
“I knew it was going to be hard, and we were very fortunate. I feel like we stole one, because they probably outplayed us the majority of the game. But we made enough plays down the stretch and came up with enough stops.”
When the teams met Jan. 25, Virginia romped 65-45 at John Paul Jones Arena. The Hokies conceded nothing in the rematch. Led by freshman point guard Devin Wilson, they were more patient on offense. On defense, the Hokies’ 2-3 zone puzzled UVa for long stretches Tuesday night.
“They’re a different team,” Bennett said.
The Hokies led by seven at the break, and Virginia’s deficit would have been greater had sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon not hit a 3-pointer as the half ended. With 14 minutes left, Tech led 40-29, and the home fans in the small but raucous crowd of 5,316 were howling.
The noise didn’t rattle the Cavaliers. Neither did the Hokies’ lead.
“I think we’ve gotten to the point where we keep our composure under any circumstances,” Brogdon said. “When we’re down 10 or we’re down one, I feel like we play the same way. We don’t get in panic mode and take bad shots. We get the shots we need and the shots we want.”
UVa’s comeback started with a 3-pointer by freshman point guard London Perrantes, his third of the game. That pulled Virginia to 40-32. About three minutes later, Harris’ trey made it 43-38.
The shot was the first to fall for Harris in eight attempts Tuesday night.
“You can’t worry about all that stuff,” he said. “On our team, if you’re having an off night, guys still have confidence in you to take and make shots, so they’re always encouraging you and letting you know you need to take the shot if it’s there.
“It just felt good to finally connect on one there. We hit some big shots down the stretch. Justin hit some huge shots down the stretch, and it was good to finally to see the ball go in the hole for once.”
Harris was referring, of course, to the Cavaliers’ sixth man, 6-6 sophomore Justin Anderson. In his previous eight games, Anderson had made only 1 of 16 shots from 3-point range, and he missed his first three attempts Tuesday night. With 3:25 left, however, he buried a trey from the right corner to pull Virginia to 46-45.
After Harris’ second trey put the `Hoos up 48-46 — their first lead since 14-13 — Anderson struck from long range again, this time from the left side with 2:37 left. The Hokies, suddenly trailing by five, never recovered.
“I didn’t worry about the [misses],” Anderson said. “I haven’t worried about the shots from previous games. I just continued to stay confident in my jump shot and continued to get extra work in on the jump shot. I got a couple good looks there at the end, and I appreciate my teammates dearly for having the faith in me to get it to me in a spot to score. It was just two big-time shots for our team, and I’m just happy to do it for this team in particular.”
Anderson, who played power forward when Bennett went to a smaller lineup, contributed more than timely offense Tuesday night. His suffocating defense inspired his teammates, most notably on a second-half play in which he dived on the floor for the ball, forcing a turnover.
“When I saw that ball free, I just wanted to get it,” Anderson said. “Those are the 50/50 balls we all talk about needing to get, and I think that was a huge spark.”
Anderson finished with nine points. Only Brogdon (12) and Perrantes (11) scored more for the Cavaliers, who at 13-1 have matched their best-ever start in ACC play.
“Coach always says you never know when your number’s going to be called or when it’s going to be your night,” Brogdon said, “and tonight was Justin’s night, coming off the bench and having a huge performance for us when it came down to crunch time.”
The 6-4 Wilson and 6-11 sophomore Joey van Zegeren led Tech with 13 points apiece. Wilson hit 5 of 7 shots from the floor, including his only 3-point attempt, totaled five assists and turned the ball over only once.
Wilson’s counterpart, Perrantes, had three assists and no turnovers. Perrantes matched his career high with three treys.
“You had two really good freshman point guards playing out there today,” Bennett said.
Another freshman guard, Ben Emelogu, made 1 of 2 free throws with 6:29 remaining to put Tech up 46-42. The Hokies didn’t score again until Wilson hit a layup with 31.4 seconds to play.
The Cavaliers’ defense was uncharacteristically porous in the first half, when Tech shot 50 percent from the floor. Late in the game, though, the `Hoos had few lapses at either end.
“I thought down the stretch they made plays,” Tech coach James Johnson said. “They made plays and we didn’t. To be a winning team and be on the streak that they’re on, you find ways to win games. They’ve done it, and they did it again tonight.”
The ACC road victory was UVa’s seventh, a school record. If the outcome was familiar for the `Hoos, their tactics were not. Virginia attempted a season-high 25 3-pointers.
Five of the Cavaliers’ treys came in the final 10 minutes, and during one first-half stretch they missed nine straight shots from beyond the arc. Still, the looks were there, and eventually the shots dropped for UVa, whose execution against Tech’s zone improved in the second half.
“I thought we got better as the game wore on,” Bennett said.
Anderson and Harris were a combined 4 for 12 from beyond the arc Tuesday night, but each delivered when the Hokies seemed on the verge of a breakthrough victory.
Harris’ second trey, from the left wing, was from NBA range. When the ball came to him from Perrantes, Harris was 1 for 9 from the floor, but he didn’t hesitate.
“He’s got a green light to take that, and that was a significant one,” Benentt said.
Harris is a “guy who’s been through the wars that’s got the confidence to take that and make that,” Bennett said. “A lot of younger guys maybe don’t have that, but he’s earned that right, and he showed up.”
And so their final visit to Cassell Coliseum ended happily for Harris and Mitchell, the remaining members of Bennett’s first recruiting class at UVa. Perrantes hopes to have similar success in Blacksburg.
“It was a great first experience for me,” he said. “Being down almost the whole game, and then coming back at the end and then getting the win, it was good for us.”
HOMESTAND: UVa has four regular-season games left, and the next three are at JPJ.
The first and third of those home games — Notre Dame (Saturday, 2 p.m.) and Syracuse (March 1, 4 p.m.) — are sold out. Tickets remain for the Feb. 26 game against the Miami Hurricanes. For ticket information, visit VirginiaSports.com or call (800) 542-8821.
Virginia is 12-2 at JPJ this season.
UVa closes the regular season March 9 against Maryland in College Park.