Virginia’s Darion Atkins posted a career-high of 17 points.
The first game after exams each December at Virginia almost always seems to be a slightly off-kilter affair for the Cavaliers. Wednesday night’s match-up with Morgan State proved no different. Despite a fairly comfortable 18-point win, 75-57, UVa spent much of the night trying to find the pre-break rhythm that led to seven straight victories.
So while the Hoos picked up their eighth consecutive W, there was plenty to add to the practice plans for the next several days. Some sloppy offense and turnovers? Yes. UVa finished with 16 give-aways and several shaky possessions that resulted in flashy, though empty, possessions like a missed two-handed jam from Justin Anderson . The Cavs also made just 19 of 29 free throws on the night (65.5%). In general, it was an out of sync and inconsistent night for the hosts.
“That game was very uncharacteristic of us I thought. It was uncharacteristic as far as turnovers and defensively we didn’t play, I felt like, a real solid defensive game,” said UVa’s Paul Jesperson , who had 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist. “There were spurts when we were playing well offensively and defensively but then we weren’t able to put that team away because we’d have a turnover or weren’t able to get a stop when we needed one.”
Indeed worst of all were some persistent Pack-Line breakdowns on defense. The Cavaliers allowed Morgan State to reach 46.7% shooting, the only opponent to surpass 40% shooting in this winning streak. The Bears’ DeWayne Jackson led the way in breaking down the Virginia defense with a 32-point night; he made 11 of 16 shots. To put that in perspective, the Cavs’ last two opponents prior to the exam break each finished in the 30’s as a team. State eclipsed 50% shooting in the second half with a 52.2% number after intermission.
As regular UVa fans would expect, coach Tony Bennett was not pleased with the effort on that end of the floor nor with the first post-exam performance in general.
“I thought it was poor. I thought we were undisciplined. I thought we weren’t sound. We didn’t respect the game in stretches. Guys did some good things, but the game is meant to be played a certain way for us. Jackson had a big game and made some plays, but a lot of baskets were at the rim in the second half. … I think our guys lost their way a little bit in that game in my honest opinion,” Bennett said. “I told our guys, I let them know what I thought, and I said I’ll be the first to apologize if the tape proves me wrong. … I’ll watch the tape and see. We have to sharpen up and be more disciplined and understand what needs to be done.”
Beyond the fairly typical post-exam bug-a-boos, the story of the night turned out to be the continued strong play of Virginia’s starting post players, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins . That duo combined for 32 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, and 1 blocked shot against Morgan State. Mitchell cranked out his fifth double-double of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds while flirting with a triple-double with 7 assists. Atkins, meanwhile, poured in career-highs of 17 points and 3 steals to go with 4 boards and 1 block.
For the season, Mitchell averages 13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in 28 minutes, while Atkins averages 9.2 points and 5.3 rebounds. Overall, that’s 22.7 points and 14.8 rebounds between the pair; they’ve also posted 30 assists, 23 blocks, and 20 steals on the season. Those numbers have adequately replaced the production lost from star Mike Scott and his fellow senior sidekick Assane Sene last year. Scott (18.0 points, 8.3 rebounds) and Sene (4.9 points and 3.7 rebounds) combined for 22.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 43 assists, 30 blocks, and 27 steals last season. Mitchell and Atkins are also key cogs in the Pack-Line defense where their quickness, activity, and versatility allow UVa to match up in a variety of ways with opponents’ schemes while better defending on-ball screens.
Akil Mitchell came through with another double-double.
Of course, it’s still December. The beauty of Scott’s first-team All-ACC season in 2011-2012 was the consistency he brought to the table night in and night out, particularly in the grueling league battles of January and February. With just two more non-conference tune-ups (Old Dominion and Wofford) left before an 18-game ACC gauntlet arrives in early 2013, the question becomes whether Mitchell and Atkins can sustain this level of play.
“It’s not going to stop. Me and Akil, we’ve definitely talked about it. That’s one thing I don’t want anyone to think that just because it is out of conference we’re going to play a certain way,” Atkins said. “When the competition picks up, we still got to pick it up a notch and have to go up another gear and battle against those guys.”
“I think we can. We’re kind of a dual threat. If one guy is playing well, then the other guy is going to get opportunities,” Mitchell said. “I can’t speak for Darion and what he does mentally to prepare for games, but I know I’m going to take every game the same. I feel like if he does too then we both have the ability to do it.”
If that holds true, this year’s team has considerable potential … as long as it can shake off the post-exam rust. The next challenge comes Saturday when the Hoos face Old Dominion in the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic in Richmond.