Joe Harris came through with 15 points and 7 boards.
In many ways, the system employed by the Virginia men’s basketball team is a test of wills. Mainly, will you grind it out against the Pack-Line defense for extended periods of time? Fairfield got a heavy dose of the classic Tony Bennett style defense Monday night in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament as the Hoos shut down the Stags in the final 8 minutes to pull away to the 54-45 victory.
After allowing 52.2% shooting in the first half, the Cavaliers (1-1) gave up just 20.8% shooting in the second half. That left Fairfield (1-1) with a 36.2% shooting night overall. Bennett thought his team handled ball-screen defense better after halftime and he noted that shortening the guard rotation in the second half to Joe Harris , Paul Jesperson , and Justin Anderson appeared to help the perimeter defense as well. The Stags hit 6 of 11 3-pointers in the first half, but just 1 of 10 after the break.
Bennett thought the execution improved down the stretch when the Hoos allowed just two baskets in the final 7:25.
“I told our guys, I didn’t think they understand how they’re going to run offense. Sometimes we call it false motion. They’re going to take it to the end of the shot clock, partly Princeton stuff, and you can’t lapse. Sometimes our guys would just rest for a second and that’s when they would make a play,” Bennett said. “I just told them stay down in a stance and make them earn their shots. If they’re contested outside shots, I’ll live with it but don’t give them anything where they’re splitting you and getting to the rim, which we still did at times. But I thought there was more of a sense of look we’re going to be in front of you, you’re going to have to make some plays over our length, and that’s what I thought with the bigger guards, a little more to contest the shots and even switching the ball screens a few times late helped us.”
Of course, to pull away on the scoreboard, there’s got to be some offense too. The Cavaliers found that after intermission by running things through Harris in the half’s opening minutes and then spreading the wealth. Harris recorded the first 4 made field goals of the second half; in fact, the only other point during those 4 minutes and 15 seconds came on a Jesperson free throw, the first of his career. The fourth Harris bucket of the half gave UVa 37-35 lead with 15:45 remaining and the hosts never trailed again.
Harris, who spent much of the evening in a lead guard ball-handling role, filled up the stat sheet with 15 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block. The junior said he is getting used to a role as one of the offense’s focal points after the graduation of Mike Scott.
“Coach is always talking about [how] defenses, you know, I guess they respect my jump shot so whenever I’m coming off of screens they really hedge hard and try to prevent that from happening so that allows guys to slip and me to create for other people,” Harris said. “That’s just how it goes with graduation and losing some really key players. Obviously some guys have got to step up and whatever the coaching staff is asking them to do, that’s how it goes.”
While Harris jumpstarted things in the second half to get the Hoos to the lead, the balance expected of this season’s team started to wear down Fairfield over the course of the contest. Akil Mitchell scored 8 points after intermission to finish with 12 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block. Paul Jesperson added 6 points and 2 assists on the night and the Hoos also got 6 points from Mike Tobey . There was also another stat-sheet-stuffing effort from Justin Anderson , who had 4 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 block.
True freshman Evan Nolte came through with 11 points, 3 steals, and 2 assists on the night as well. That included a steal and buzzer-beating lay-up just before halftime that gave the Cavaliers a little momentum headed into the second half. “Heady player. That was a smart play and he got it up there,” Bennett said. “… I thought the lift Nolte gave us the whole game was significant, but that burst at the end of the half really made a difference.”
Akil Mitchell recorded a new career high of 12 points.
Mitchell said that’s how this year’s team will have to operate in order to be successful, something that Bennett has said many times already this season. The Cavalier coach, for example, used a different starting lineup from the season opener at George Mason and adjusted the second-half rotation to help with matchups too.
That, of course, means that players will have to remain committed to the cause and focused from night to night. After all, there could be nights where minutes and production fluctuate based on a variety of factors. Mitchell indicated that the upper classmen, including himself as a junior, would have to keep the team’s chemistry flowing.
“That falls on me. That’s my job to be a leader, to tell the young guys to just be patient and just give them that extra perspective of the coaches,” Mitchell said. “The coaches might not verbalize what they want to all the time but our players have to understand that it’s a process and team thing so we have to be collective in getting to our goals.”
With Monday night’s win, the Cavaliers advance to the second round of the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament. They don’t have to wait long for that game. It’s Tuesday night at the John Paul Jones Arena at 7 p.m.
Note: Point guard Teven Jones suffered an injury in pregame warm-ups and did not play.