Jontel Evans scored a career-high 10 points.
Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers firmly established themselves as a second-half team Monday night after rallying to a 20-point win, 74-54, over USC Upstate at the John Paul Jones Arena. Virginia’s Pack-Line defense did little to frustrate the Spartans early in the contest, as the Cavaliers gave up several 3-pointers and a few key drives to the basket. In the second half, Virginia came out as a much more cohesive unit, aided by clutch play from the Wahoo bench.
“I thought that they could get whatever they wanted on us in the first half. We were very easy to score against with breakdowns defensively,” Bennett said. “There wasn’t a sense of urgency and we were certainly out of sync. We sort of gave them what they wanted and didn’t impose our will at all on them from a defensive standpoint first, but even offensively.”
The Cavaliers came out slow to start the evening, allowing Upstate to dictate the game on both offense and defense. Guard Tony Dukes, who was more than comfortable shooting from beyond the arc, paced the Spartans. Dukes was a perfect 5-5 from 3-point range, and had three triples in the first half.
Upstate handled Virginia’s unique defense well, spreading the Pack-Line and utilizing guard-on-guard screens to get penetration. The Spartans also took exactly what Virginia gave them; they had absolutely no problem shooting long 3’s and hit 10-23 as a team. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, got off to a shaky start offensively. They turned the ball over on their first possession and didn’t achieve their first lead of the game until 7:45 minutes remained in the first half off a KT Harrell 3-pointer. All in all, there were 11 lead changes in the first half.
“They came out and hit their shots, but we knew what we had to do. We had to come out and execute in the second half,” sophomore guard Jontel Evans said. “We are a defensive team and we have to do the little things to win, which all comes down to playing great defense.”
Evans had the first double-digit scoring game of his career, dropping in 10 points and shooting 4 of 7 from the field. The sophomore worked well in tandem with freshman Billy Baron , who put up another solid game after an impressive showing in the season opener. Bennett was encouraged by what he saw from the duo; Baron’s physicality and aggression complements Evans’ quickness and nose for the ball.
Billy Baron had another complete game with 14 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 25 minutes.
“Billy has been very solid. He has a nice feel for the game, a physical kid. Tonight he had a nice presence out there,” Bennett said. “I love Jontel’s competitiveness. He and Billy have been out there a lot and I have two point guards, which isn’t a bad thing.”
Baron may soon be a household name among Cavalier fans, and his teammates appreciate the effort and the element of intensity he brings to the court.
“He makes it easy on me,” Evans said of his co-guard. “He is a great guard, all I have to do is drive and kick it out and he will hit his open shots.”
Baron came off the bench to provide a much-needed spark for Virginia. He exploded in the second half for 14 points, and also contributed 3 assists, 3 rebounds and two key steals. Baron’s offensive spark coincided with a 12-0 run in the second half, which put the game completely out of reach for Upstate.
“I love playing with [Evans]. We feed off of each other defensively. He can penetrate so well that I know he can find me and that really helps to open up our offense,” Baron said. “I felt a lot more comfortable out there today. I still need to loosen up some more and I know that will come with time.”
Another newcomer who had an impact was freshman wing Joe Harris . Harris showed great hustle in the second half, coming up with a key steal and contributing eight points. Bennett’s younger players are stepping up across the board, which has proven key to the team’s 2-0 start. Forward Akil Mitchell scored the first points of his career at Virginia in high style and closed out the night’s scoring by stealing the ball and then finishing with a monster, two-handed dunk that brought the sparse, Monday night crowd to its feet.
It wasn’t all fresh faces and new players, though; senior forward Mike Scott paced the veteran players, shooting a perfect 7-7 from the free throw line and contributing 12 points from the field and 12 rebounds.
Bennett will need more nights like that from Scott as the Hoos take their show on the road in the coming weeks with a 6-game stretch away from home. The Cavaliers will be facing some quality opponents over the next few weeks so shoring up the defense and coming out of the gates more quickly will be key.
“Certainly the competition steps up. That’s no disrespect to the two teams we’ve played, but we will have to be ready. You can’t afford to come out sluggish,” Bennett said. “Will we be perfect? That’s probably not the case, but if you come out and you’re not alert or they’re getting easy baskets and owning you on the glass and you’re a little stagnant, it will be very difficult and challenging. We are going to learn a lot about ourselves coming up in the next games.”