By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With 12 seconds left on the clock and palpable tension inside John Paul Jones Arena, UVa’s players huddled during a timeout. The second-ranked Cavaliers led 61-60, but the basketball belonged to Wake Forest, which had rallied from 13 points down in this Saturday matinee and stood on the brink of a monumental upset.
“We just told ourselves that we need this stop,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “This is what we do. This is what we pride ourselves on, so let’s get it done.”
The Wahoos got it done. The Demon Deacons inbounded the ball to Mitchell Wilbekin, who passed to junior guard Codi Miller-McIntyre with eight seconds left. Miller-McIntyre found himself defended by Brogdon, a 6-5, 215-pound redshirt junior.
“I was just trying to pressure him, just trying to make him uncomfortable,” Brogdon recalled afterward.
Miller-McIntyre, Wake’s best penetrator, tried to drive past Brogdon and into the lane. Nothing doing. Brogdon “road-blocked him,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
And so Miller-McIntyre dribbled back to the top of the key, only to fumble away the ball as he started to probe the defense again. Brogdon picked the ball up, the horn sounded, and the `Hoos and their fans could finally exhale.
“We were just fortunate to make one stop at the end to come away with a tough win against a team that’s really improving,” Bennett said. “You see the pressure they put on you. And they did that without Devin Thomas.”
Thomas, a 6-9, 255-pound junior, came in averaging 12.7 points and 9.6 rebounds. Beset by foul trouble and Virginia’s post traps, Thomas played only 16 minutes Saturday and finished with three points, five rebounds and four turnovers. But the Deacons (12-14, 4-9) have a formidable weapon in freshman Dinos Mitoglou, and he nearly toppled the Cavaliers (23-1, 11-1) with his long-range shooting.
A 6-10, 225-pound forward from Greece, Mitoglou hit six 3-pointers Saturday. His fifth trey cut Virginia’s lead to 58-56 with 2:21 left. His sixth pulled Wake to 60-59 with 39 seconds remaining.
“We knew coming in it was going to be tough, because he shot the ball extremely well, and he’s so quick [with his release],” UVa guard London Perrantes said.
Wake coach Danny Manning “gave me the green light to shoot the ball,” Mitoglou said, “and I shoot it every time with confidence. My teammates, whenever I touch the ball, they say to shoot it. They believe in me.”
In his past four games, Mitoglou is 18 for 29 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“He’s torching it,” Bennett said.
Since losing its top 3-point shooter, 6-6 junior Justin Anderson, to a fractured finger Feb. 7 against Louisville, Virginia has torched no one from outside. In the five halves the `Hoos have played without Anderson, they’ve made only 6 of 31 attempts from 3-point range.
Against Wake, Virginia was 2 for 12 from beyond the arc. Junior forward Evan Nolte, who took Anderson’s place in the starting lineup, was 2 for 4, the first time since Dec. 18 he’s made more than one trey in a game. But the Cavaliers’ starting guards, Perrantes and Brogdon, were a combined 0 for 8 from long range Saturday.
“I feel like I do a lot of shooting, a lot of extra stuff, and it’s a little frustrating for me,” Perrantes said, “but we’re winning, so I can’t be too frustrated. I’m just going to keep working on my shot and keep practicing and just keep shooting it.”
Bennett said: “We’re not setting the records for 3-point percentage these last couple games, so let’s get [the ball] moved, attack the paint, throw it inside. But if [a 3-pointer is] in room and rhythm, absolutely take it, because Malcolm and London can shoot that. But we can’t live and die by it. That’s not who we are.”
Virginia, which at 23-1 has matched the best start in school history, was considerably more effective closer to the basket, making 22 of 41 shots from inside the arc. Leading the way was 6-8 redshirt junior Anthony Gill, who made 7 of 10 shots from the floor (and 5 of 8 from the line) and finished with a game-high 19 points.
In Mitoglou, Wake has a power forward “who can stretch” the defense with his 3-point shot,” Bennett said.
In Gill, the Cavaliers have one “who can really attack you off the dribble,” Bennett said. “That puts pressure on the defense, and he’s been able to get to the spots where he needs to, to drop them in. We needed all of that, without a doubt.”
Gill said: “I just wanted to be aggressive. Nothing different than any other game that we’ve had. It just starting falling for me tonight. I’m blessed to be in this opportunity. We had a tough game tonight. I think we should have put them away a lot earlier than we did, but we let them come back.”
The Cavaliers trailed 31-24 midway, their largest halftime deficit of the season. But they awakened the sellout crowd by dominating the first 9:20 of the second half.
Nolte, who dislocated the middle finger on his non-shooting hand late in the first half, didn’t let the injury deter him after intermission. His first trey pulled the `Hoos to 31-27. His second extended their lead to 38-34.
He’s more comfortable as a perimeter-shooting power forward, but Nolte has been playing mostly small forward since Anderson’s injury.
“Whatever the team needs,” Nolte said. “Justin got hurt, so someone’s gotta step in. I’m just trying to do my best.”
After Mitoglou’s fourth 3-pointer pulled Wake to 40-38, the Cavaliers responded with an 11-0 run. It ended with a three-point play by Gill, who swiped the ball from Mitoglou in the frontcourt and then dribbled in for a layup on which he was fouled with 10:42 remaining.
The sellout crowd, which included UVa Law School graduate John Paul Jones, for whom the arena is named, roared its approval, and a blowout seemed imminent. But the Cavaliers, unbelievably, did not score again until the 5:16 mark, when Nolte passed to Perrantes for a baseline jumper that made it 53-46.
Time and again, the `Hoos rushed shots, and they stopped looking inside to Gill or to fellow post players Darion Atkins (six points) and Mike Tobey (eight points).
“I thought a few times when we got that lead we had some poor shot discernment,” Bennett said. “We looked a little inexperienced.”
“We took a lot of quick shots,” said Nolte, one of the culprits, “and we should have worked [the defense] more. We’re usually a very mature team, especially coming down in the last couple minutes. But we had the lead and were just kind of taking quick shots … We were out of whack for a little bit, and that stuff shouldn’t have happened.”
With 28.4 seconds left and Virginia’s lead slashed to a single point, Gill went to the line for a one-and-one. He made his first free throw but missed the second, and Wake rebounded.
With 16.5 seconds to play and the Deacons down 61-59, Miller-McIntyre went to the line for two shots. Like Gill, Miller-McIntyre made the first and missed the second. But he soared to snare the rebound of his missed free throw, giving Wake a fresh possession.
Fortunately for the `Hoos, nothing came of Wake’s last chance, thanks to Brogdon’s textbook defense on Miller-McIntyre.
“That was awesome for us just to go out there and get that stop,” Gill said. “I think sometimes we’d rather be on defense the last play than offense.”
The Cavaliers “won the second half,” Manning said. “At the end of the ball game, those guys just sat down and made a great defensive play. That’s great team defense, and that’s why they are where they are.”
Virginia and Wake will collide again in less than two weeks. The rematch is Feb. 25 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C.
BIG MONDAY: The Cavaliers face a quick turnaround. At 7 p.m. Monday, in a game ESPN will televise, UVa hosts Pittsburgh (17-9, 6-6) at sold-out JPJ.
Saturday afternoon at its Petersen Events Center, Pitt upset No. 12 North Carolina 89-76. The victory was the fourth in five games for the Panthers.
In their regular-season meeting last season, the `Hoos edged the Panthers 48-45 in Pittsburgh on a last-second 3-pointer by Brogdon. Virginia also defeated Pitt in the ACC tournament.
The Cavaliers’ three-game homestand concludes next Sunday night, when Florida State (14-12, 6-7) visits JPJ. That game is sold out, too, as is UVa’s Feb. 28 home finale, against Virginia Tech.