UVa’s Justin Anderson scored 14 points, a new career high.
Another balanced scoring effort complemented by a good defensive outing propelled Virginia to a win in the NIT Preseason Tip-Off consolation round. The Cavaliers placed five players in double figures and held North Texas to 36.2% shooting to pick up the 80-64 victory Tuesday night at the John Paul Jones Arena.
The Hoos (4-2) have won three straight games. The program improved to 27-2 under Tony Bennett when scoring at least 70 points. This one required a little physical and mental toughness as the Mean Green (3-3) ratcheted up the intensity in the second half, but after a few shaky minutes, the Cavaliers responded.
“North Texas is a tough team,” UVa freshman Justin Anderson said. “A lot of people may not give them their credit, but their toughness is tremendous and we had to match their intensity. … They’ll jump into you and the defense is really well. We came together, we beared down, and it came down to toughness, who’s going to have that burning desire inside that is going to come out on top.”
North Texas certainly increased its aggressiveness at the start of the second half, leading to a lot of contact and a lot of fouls, including a barreling body check that sent Teven Jones into the first row seats. As a result, UVa reached the double bonus before the 10:00 mark and shot 17 second-half free throws, making 14 of those.
Anderson and Jones proved to be two of the beneficiaries as the duo made 6 of 8 and 6 of 7 free throws, respectively. That left Anderson with a career-high 14 points to go with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block, while Jones added a career-high 13 points, 4 assists, and 1 steal in 31 minutes. Joining that pair in double figures were Evan Nolte (13 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assist, 1 steal), Joe Harris (12 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block), and Darion Atkins (10 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal, 1 assist).
“I would like to give Tony and his group credit. They had a great game plan and came out and took us out of a lot of things we wanted to do. They did a good job doubling Tony Mitchell, and Chris Jones, who has been playing really well. They did a great job executing on the offensive end,” NT coach Tony Benford said. “We told our guys that they’re one of the best teams around, even if they are young. They do a great job of moving the basketball and getting the ball to the right shooter, and guys that can make plays. They did a good job executing.”
That execution propelled Virginia to a 42-22 lead at intermission, the third straight game that the Hoos have owned a big halftime lead. Tuesday night, North Texas made a run much more significant than either Seattle or Lamar could muster in the previous two contests, though.
In the second half in fact, the story of the game quickly became Virginia’s periodic struggles with fullcourt pressure. That, of course, is something that has crept up before for Bennett’s squads at UVa, perhaps the most notable one being an ACC Tournament flameout against Miami. In that one, the Cavaliers led by 10 with 42 seconds left in regulation before losing 69-62 in overtime.
This season has shown signs of trouble there at times too, including some moments in the season opener at George Mason and most recently against Seattle this past Saturday. The Hoos, however, appeared to adjust much more quickly to the Redhawks’ ‘scramble and gamble’ style as Bennett called it after the Seattle game. It should be noted that the Mean Green played a more physical and aggressive brand of fullcourt pressure with more fouls too, but for the first several minutes of the second half, they clearly rattled the Cavaliers with mostly zone pressure. UVa had just 3 turnovers in the first half and then coughed it up 7 times in the first 4 minutes after intermission. The Hoos finished with 15 turnovers. There’s enough concern there for questions to linger as the Cavs take an eight-day break before their next game.
The biggest issues appeared to be indecision by the inbounder (Virginia had a pair of 5-second calls for example), attempts to dribble for too long through narrow alleys in the defense, and handling the ball while not dribbling against heavy pressure. Bennett described it as having a “divided mind” between taking care of the ball and attacking. Notably, as the North Texas foul totals grew, the Cavaliers seemed to revive the pep in their step by feeding off some of the physicality and easy points on the other end, either at the free throw line or from open looks. Once the Hoos shook off the Mean Green’s push to a 9-point deficit five different times, they slowly pulled away due to the high percentage opportunities that developed on offense.
“We just came together and told ourselves ‘Look we need to calm down,'” Jones said. “We go against managers in practice and it’s about eight of them pressing us. So we were like just breathe deep, we can do this, and we settled down and came out with the win.”
Hoo guard Teven Jones posted 13 points and 4 assists in 31 minutes.
“I have a big role in that. When I got all discombobulated, so does the team. Everything goes through the point guard,” Jones added later. “Actually, I showed a bad attitude a little bit. I’m disappointed in myself for doing that. Coach [Ron] Sanchez said something to me about it so I fixed that real quick and as soon as I fixed that, we started picking it up.”
The other areas that troubled Bennett? Transition defense and the defensive glass. North Texas produced 11 fastbreak points. The visitors also put up 21 offensive rebounds while UVa produced just 19 defensive rebounds. Akil Mitchell , Darion Atkins , and Evan Nolte led the team with 4 defensive rebounds each, but the Cavalier guards combined for just 5.
“I thought we played well in the first half. There were three areas that really cost us in the second half that really brought them back in the game. The first was transition defense. Whether it was a make or a miss, North Texas would either get it under the net or they would go,” Bennett said. “The second thing was handling the pressure. We got rattled. I think North Texas got a little tired because they came with everything, but we didn’t do a good job. Finally, the rebounding hurt us. When you look at the offensive rebounds, they had 21 offensive rebounds. A lot of that was our guards not engaging or being in the play. Those three areas will cost you and we talked about those after the game.”
With that said, this young group of Wahoos made it through the season’s opening stretch – almost 20% of the schedule is now complete – with a 4-2 record and lot of experience to draw on as the 2012-2013 campaign continues. Considering how the team looked back at the George Mason opener while dealing with the injuries to Jontel Evans and Malcolm Brogdon as well as a suspension for Jones, the noticeable progress and improvement in the season’s first two weeks has been encouraging. The Hoos hope to keep that going after the Thanksgiving break.
“I think in order to see the part at the end, you’ve got to go through some tough times,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately, we went through some tough times with Delaware and George Mason, but the way we responded and the way we bounced back was terrific and if we continue to do that, we can be a great team.”
“Obviously with our inexperience in this six-game period, I think they’ve grown a little bit each game in different ways. I think they’re maturing little by little. I think with the addition of Jontel, which is hopefully sooner than later, that gives us another weapon, some more ball-handling, and pressure defensively,” Bennett said. “What I like, which was the question, is they’ve matured and I think they’ve grown and are starting to understand, not fully yet, how they have to play. The defensive intensity, the soundness on that end. And then the ability [to share the ball] – I thought they were very unselfish in the first half. … They certainly shared the ball and there were some good things that happened.”