KT Harrell reacts after making a basket despite a foul; he finished with 15 points.
The statistics panels on the John Paul Jones Arena scoreboard did not light up when the Virginia men’s basketball team faced LSU on Sunday. No, the Cavaliers didn’t shoot the lights out. Fortunately, however, the Hoos did somewhat shake off an offensive slump – six players scored at least 8 points as the team shot 40.4% from the field, including 45.8% in the second half – in a 64-50 win that snapped a two-game skid.
After a three-game stretch that saw the team make just 55 of 169 shots (32.5%), UVa may want to turn off those stat boards permanently if it helps the Cavaliers (9-5) overcome their shooting woes. So did coach Tony Bennett turn off the stat-tracking part of the scoreboard so the team couldn’t see what its percentage was?
“He might of, he might of,” senior forward Will Sherrill said with a smile when asked the question afterward. “We talked a lot about just being confident. Actually the day after our Iowa State game, we all came in early as a team and got up extra shots before practice, just taking matters into our own hands. We were struggling and we knocked down some shots today, [but] we didn’t shoot a great percentage and our defense kept us in the game. The big thing is to keep improving every day and that’s what we have to do on Tuesday for sure.”
After struggling through those three frustrating nights offensively in late December, a whole horde of Hoos helped get something – anything really – going on that end. KT Harrell led the team in scoring again with 15 points, while Mustapha Farrakhan found his way in the second half to finish with 11. Akil Mitchell came off the bench to provide 9 points, making 4 of 6 shots, and Joe Harris added 9 too. Jontel Evans chipped in 8 points as did Sherrill, who knocked down a pair of corner-ball 3-pointers in the waning minutes to add to the 64, the team’s most points in seven games.
So how did Virginia’s offense produce a little more effectively Sunday? The Cavaliers found ways to get the ball to touch the paint. Evans and Harrell in particular put the ball on the floor and attacked the rim aggressively against the Tigers. Harrell made several strong moves to the basket and earned trips to the charity stripe where he made 6 of 7 free throws.
Evans started with a steal and lay-up on the first possession of the game and added several other drives as the game moved forward; even when he didn’t score in there, it did lead to positive things as Will Regan got an easy offensive tip-in and Sherrill made a 3-pointer on a penetrate-and-pitch play (Sherrill’s other 3-ball came by popping after he set a screen for Farrakhan).
Bennett said it was important to find ways to get the ball in the paint without Mike Scott, who continues to be evaluated after aggravating an ankle injury.
“If there’s opportunities to touch, we always say touch the paint, get a piece of the paint by driving. We’re not going to score a bunch without Mike by throwing it in and letting someone go to work,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to attack the paint when the opportunities present themselves and try to open up the lane. They kept their composure for the most part against the zone. Jontel made a difference and he finished; he’s been working hard on his finishing. And so did some of the other guys whether it was by drawing a foul or getting in there.”
Evans, as mentioned earlier, played a big part in the more assertive offense, but he had an even better night on the defensive end. Bennett praised Evans for a sterling defensive effort for the second straight game and Sherrill pointed out the importance of that defense as well. Evans spearheaded the effort on LSU’s Andrew Stringer, who managed just 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting; he needed a deep 3-pointer from above the top of the key and a free throw in the final 2:38 to reach that total. Entering the game, Stringer led the Tigers in scoring with an average of 14.4 points per game.
Jontel Evans attacked the paint and posted 8 points and 6 assists.
The Cavaliers’ sophomore point guard said he came in with a more aggressive mindset on both ends of the floor.
“Over the last couple of games, I felt like I wasn’t aggressive, I was kind of timid on both ends of the floor,” Evans said. “Tonight I just wanted to be aggressive on both ends because I feel like once I get the defense started, I get the crowd in the game, I get my teammates in the game, they’re engaged on the defensive end and ready to play. I just wanted to come out and get an early steal and get everybody into the game.”
Virginia will need all of its players to sustain that kind of effort and mindset moving forward. After a Tuesday night date with Howard, the Cavaliers finish off their regular season schedule with 15 straight ACC games. The Hoos will try to build on the win and a 9-4 record as the 2011 portion of the slate rolls along.
“With a team that is inexperienced and has a lot of young guys, momentum and psyche are certainly important. I told our guys ‘you take it and scrap for it.’ I think it was important to show that we could still play good basketball even though Mike’s not with us and Sammy and Will aren’t at 100%,” Bennett said. “We actually caught a break with LSU because Storm Warren didn’t play. He is an active athletic rebounder so they weren’t at full strength but neither were we. I hope this win helps and we’ll just keep preparing. I always say ‘don’t get too high and don’t get too low.’ We have to keep plugging and getting ready for everyone we play.”