The Virginia men’s basketball team continued its hot start to the season with a 69-42 dismantling of Maryland Eastern Shore on Tuesday night at the John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers, who had a season-high 22 assists in the win, are 11-1 for the first time since 2000-2001. The team’s nine-game winning streak is the longest since 2001-2002.
The story of the night, however, was the new look of the UVa squad. KT Harrell and James Johnson transferred out of the program at the end of last week so this was the first action for the Cavaliers without those two players in uniform. Those changes pushed true freshman Paul Jesperson into playing time for the first time; he originally had planned to redshirt this season.
“With Akil and Darion and Paul and Malcolm [Brogdon], I think they’re all going to have to contribute. Again, that’s the nine man rotation that we’re talking about. I think they’ll all have their moments,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “You could see the liveliness and Darion blocking some shots and quick second jumps for putbacks, being active defensively – the same with Akil. You’re going to need that … if Mike gets in foul trouble or Assane. … I think we’re pretty comfortable with that rotation and I think they’ll all get their opportunities. That’ll be important and these minutes are valuable for them.”
Jesperson, who reportedly went to the coaches after Harrell’s decision to transfer with a whatever-helps-the-team attitude, received a warm welcome from Cavalier fans in his first foray into college basketball. The fans cheered his entry in to the game and every subsequent move with enthusiasm, but he let the game come to him on the offensive end. He didn’t take a shot until 10 minutes were left in the contest, but he made the first one count as he drained a 3-pointer across from the Virginia bench. Moments later, he attacked too aggressively and committed a charge, but he caught a pass on a cut to the basket for two points.
In the end, Jesperson scored 5 points in 15 minutes.
“The coaches talked to me a lot about that before I took the redshirt. They still wanted me to keep my mental game right through practices. I didn’t have to make that big of a switch because I was still preparing and helping the team out and still learning other offenses to keep my mind sharp. So it wasn’t that big of a mental switch I didn’t think, but any time you get out there in front of that many fans, there’s going to be some mental switch,” Jesperson said. “It was cool for the fans to congratulate me like that when I came out there. I thought that was real cool. …
“I knocked the first one down, but it went a little bit downhill from there,” Jesperson said smiling. “But I’m going to keep shooting. I’m a shooter. I’m going to stay positive with that.”
The Wisconsin native said the decision to give up his redshirt this late in the season didn’t come easily, but he wanted to try to help the team with its push toward a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“It wasn’t particularly easy because that was something I could have done to benefit myself with a fifth year of college, but this is bigger than just myself, this team,” said Wisconsin’s High School Gatorade Player of the Year for 2010-2011. “I felt if I gave up the redshirt and tried to help these guys out, I could help them get to the tournament.”
Bennett noticed the fans’ reaction as well, but was pleased that Jesperson still played within himself and didn’t force things in his first playing time. Bennett praised Jesperson’s feel for the game and passing ability as strengths on the floor.
“The thing I like about Paul is he has good feel. He really does. I heard the crowd a couple of times – I usually don’t – they wanted him to shoot, but he passed them up, he didn’t need to shoot them. He’s very comfortable moving the ball, he has great vision,” Bennett said. “He was OK defensively. He missed some outside shots like everybody else, but I like his feel and his ability to play with the other guys on the floor. I think that will be important if he gets in there at certain times. It’s not going to be to clear out for him to go one on one, but can you facilitate, can you move the ball, can you get open and take shots with confidence when it’s there, feed the post, use your size to play position defense and grab some rebounds – those will be the things that will be required of him. I think anybody who has some smarts and feel can usually figure out a way to help you and that’s my hope for him. It was for the future, but the future is now in his case and I’m glad he got 15 minutes tonight.”
Another true freshman had a strong outing in the first game with a smaller roster too. Forward Darion Atkins made 6 of 7 shots to post a career-high 13 points in the game. He also grabbed a career-high 7 rebounds, blocked two shots, and had 1 assist in 20 minutes. Atkins flashed his athleticism throughout, including a particularly impressive play where he leaped for a defensive rebound, rolled off an opponent’s back, and then somehow landed on two feet.
The Maryland native said that he is feeling more comfortable than before as he sees more and more time in games.
“I don’t know what it was. I felt like I needed to come out and it was time for me to step up and try to get into my game. Offensively, certain things will come for me. I just need to crash the glass. Tonight, I don’t know, I felt comfortable and felt like I had chemistry with the guys on the court. I felt like I played pretty good,” Atkins said. “Obviously from the game tonight, I’m a lot more comfortable. I feel like I’m coming along with the team a little bit better from the games perspective.”
Darion Atkins had career highs in points (13) and rebounds (7) in the win.
“Darion has been slowly improving and just getting a little better. You’re seeing the signs and flashes and there’s no teacher like game experience so the more he gets, the better he’ll become. I think he has a nice upside as you can see,” Bennett said. “He’s gotten better. He has natural athleticism. His timing if you watch is really impeccable with how he can block shots. … He has those physical tools, but he’s raw. It’s just kind of tying it together.”
The game didn’t belong solely to the young pups, though. Senior Mike Scott made 8 of 12 shots for 17 points in 15 minutes. Scott, who has received back-to-back ACC Player of the Week recognition, added 6 rebounds and 2 assists. Scott moved into 34th place on Virginia’s career scoring list with 1,168, moving past Chip Conner (1,157, 1962-64). Fellow senior Assane Sene had 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block.
Sophomore Joe Harris had 10 points, 3 assists, and 2 blocks, while junior Jontel Evans had 4 steals and 4 assists. Sophomore Akil Mitchell added 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 1 assist. Mitchell also had one of the night’s highlight dunks when he threw down a one-handed windmill jam in transition.
“It was really nice,” freshman Malcolm Brogdon said of the dunk (Brogdon had 3 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists.) “I was hoping he’d do that because he does it all the time in practice.”