Akil Mitchell put in another double double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
The Virginia offense sputtered down the stretch, but a sterling defensive performance helped the men’s basketball team take care of Tennessee anyway on Wednesday night. The Cavaliers burst out to a 15-point lead midway through the first half and the lead never dropped to a one-possession score again as the Hoos prevailed 46-38. UVa has won six straight games to improve to 7-2 on the season.
It has been quite the turn-around after Virginia dropped 2 of its first 3 games this season.
“I think we did a good job of not letting that first loss get to us. We really make a point to improve every game. We try to learn from the mistakes we might have made early in the season. We have a lot of room for improvement and we will come back to the drawing board and prepare for the next game,” Cav junior Joe Harris said. “We’ve made strides defensively, especially the young guys, they’re playing way better than how we started as is everybody else. I think the defense has definitely stepped up a notch.”
“We’ve grown up so much. We’ve matured as a team and found an identity and with Tony Bennett teams, you know what the identity is,” the Wahoos’ Akil Mitchell said. “We’ve really embraced it and it’s getting us W’s.”
Defense certainly proved to be the word in Wednesday’s slugfest. In fact, the 46-38 win represents the fewest points scored by UVa in a win since a 45-40 victory against NC State in 1982; that game came in the pre-shot clock era for college basketball. Those 46 points for Virginia came on 35.8% shooting, including 12.5% from 3-point range while UT produced its 38 points on 28.8%shooting with 15.8% accuracy from 3-point range. The Hoos actually scored just 8 points in the final 11 minutes, but getting continuous stops on defense helped it survive with a victory.
The Cavaliers doggedly followed Tennessee’s Skylar McBee (5 points, 2-9 shooting) around the floor and made it tough for him to get clean looks from beyond the arc. They also contained drives and on-ball screen sets throughout the night, meaning UT’s best chances came on dump-downs and high-low looks into the post. Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins , along with a periodic dose of the Pack-Line post trap, kept that stuff in check as well. Post threat Jarnell Stokes registered 5 points and 9 rebounds on 2-of-5 shooting.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett seemed pleased with the defense’s progress; UVa has held all six opponents during this winning streak to less than 40% shooting.
“I think we’re going in the right direction. I think there’s better basketball out there for us,” Bennett said. “It’s a grind for us. We just keep trying to define what Virginia basketball is going to have to look like … That’s a mindset that not every team in America has to have, but I think that has to be the way for us that we have a level of control on the defensive end possession by possession and offensively. … Defensively, just being in front of the ball all possession and when we’re that way, we can become difficult at times to play against.”
Darion Atkins blocked three shots to go along with eight points and five rebounds.
Tennessee caused plenty of problems for Virginia’s offense as well. The Volunteers chased Joe Harris around the floor in a similar fashion to UVa’s effort on McBee, but Harris did find a way to record 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He added 6 boards and 1 assist as well.
The difference came from the Cavaliers’ post players, who had a strong first half as the hosts built that initial 15-point lead. Both Mitchell and Atkins knocked in several quick-move shots in the paint before intermission as they combined for 15 of the team’s 25 first-half points. The duo slowed down a little bit against the Vols’ physical defense in the second half, but finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds combined. Mitchell tallied his fourth double-double of the season with 13 points and 12 rebounds, while Atkins added 8 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1 steal. As a team, the Cavaliers blocked 8 shots, the most by a Bennett team at UVa.
“Dealing with some of the athletes that were out there today, I thought they responded to this challenge.” Bennett said. “Darion has a soft touch as you saw early, and Akil’s really developed some of his moves. Some of his offensive rebounds were very impressive tonight. I thought there were a couple that were high-level. Extending the play, giving us another chance, that stuff’s just significant for us offensively.”
For Atkins, it marks the fourth straight game with at least 5 rebounds. That followed a 1-rebound outing against Lamar. The sophomore said he refocused on his rebounding priorities after that effort.
“That was definitely a problem, something I didn’t even realize. I was focused in too much on things that weren’t necessarily my strengths and my strengths are crashing the glass, getting rebounds, and blocking shots,” Atkins said. “So was something I definitely focused on.”
The Wahoos needed all the defense and rebounding they could muster in this one. After all, they knocked down just two field goals in the final 11:30 – a pair of lay-ups from Harris and Mitchell – and saw a double-digit lead dwindle to four points at 42-38 with 37 seconds to go.
That late-game drought came on the heels the night’s other big storyline, that being that Jontel Evans signaled for a injury timeout with an official and exited the game for good at the 13:41 mark. Evans reportedly said he tweaked the same foot that required offseason surgery. No information is available on his condition at this time. Evans finished with 4 points and 4 assists in 18 minutes, while fellow point guard Teven Jones had 2 points, 3 assists, and 1 steal in 24 minutes.
“I hope it’s not anything too bad,” Bennett said. “I said ‘Can I put him in?’ That was my question, and they said ‘Not right now.’ We’ll find out and get the x-rays. I thought he made a couple of nice drives and put pressure on them in that stretch [to build the lead to 15 again early in the second half], and was guarding well. We’ll see.”
Fortunately, the Cavaliers are closing in on their exam break so there is time built into the schedule to take a cautious route with Evans whatever the injury is. The Hoos host Mississippi Valley State on Saturday at 4 p.m. before taking an 11-day hiatus ahead of facing Morgan State on Dec. 19. Harris said that Virginia would be focused for the Delta Devils.
“We’re going to prepare the same way, obviously a little bit different with personnel and the scouting report for Mississippi Valley State, but it will be the same intensity as we had preparing for Tennessee,” Harris said. “We talk about how we’re playing against the game and it’s always a faceless opponent regardless of who it might be.”