Joe Harris led UVa with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
The opening moments of the second half at the John Paul Jones Arena didn’t live up to the halftime discussion for the Virginia men’s basketball team. So UVa coach Tony Bennett took a reminder timeout to dig into his players in their ACC opener against North Carolina.
UNC had opened the second half with a mini-surge while Virginia committed two turnovers to take a 31-26 lead. After that break at 17:40, however, the obviously more composed Hoos ripped off a 17-7 run and they did not have another turnover the rest of the way en route to a 61-52 victory. It marked the Cavaliers’ first win against the Tar Heels at the JPJ.
“They needed to understand to get going. Let’s play with some assertiveness, let’s handle the ball better. I thought offensively and defensively, it was so shaky,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “There was a lot of time left, but after talking at halftime, I thought we’d come out with a little more purpose and we were wandering too much and it cost us.”
“That was definitely not how we wanted to start the half,” UVa’s Joe Harris said. “But I felt like from that point on our defense really stepped up and it allowed us to get things going.”
Harris and Evan Nolte hit a trio of 3-pointers during that key surge early in the second half, while Jontel Evans , back from an extended rest period following a re-irritated foot injury, knocked down a floater and a pull-up jumper. Meanwhile, Darion Atkins thwarted an up-close attempt at the 15:40 for James McAdoo at the rim that seemed to spark the Cavalier defense.
In other words, the critical moments following Bennett’s timeout to wake up his Hoos contained all the key storylines of the night for Virginia: hot 3-point shooting, Evans’ return to action, and responding defensively to a hot second-half start from UNC.
Miranda Mason reports on Virginia’s win against North Carolina.
Looking first at UVa’s success from beyond the arc, the home team knocked down 8 of 14 3-pointers, a 57.1% clip that bested the free throw rate for the game (9 of 18, 50%). Nolte led the charge in that department by making 3 of 5 from downtown, while Harris connected on 2 of 4 long-range attempts. Teven Jones also drained both of his 3-point attempts in the early going while Paul Jesperson added a swished one as well.
Nolte’s 3-pointer that capped Virginia’s key 17-7 run certainly raised the most eyebrows, though. It came from just in front of the Wells Fargo logo on the court, easily NBA range, early in the shot clock. He was the trailer on the play and Evans hit him in stride for the reaction-inducing long bomb.
“I didn’t really know where I was on the court at first. Then I shot it and I could tell it was far away and right after I shot it, the crowd, everyone, was just like ‘Oooh,'” Nolte said. “I tried to shoot it with confidence and it happened to go in.”
Bennett said after the game that he was OK with that shot for Nolte even in that situation.
“I think I was looking down luckily. I kind of looked down and I heard the crowd go ‘Woah’ and boom he shot it. It was deep. Just make it, right?” Bennett said with a chuckle. “If you get it up and the guy has his feet set, there’s probably three guys on our team that I’ll say that’s a good shot to take. He’s one of them. Again, that was deep but it was open.”
The ability to knock down those jumpers opened up driving space for the Cavaliers as the game moved toward its close. Evans, Harris, and Jesperson each drove hard to the paint on multiple occasions as the Hoos made a concerted effort to attack the rim after some offensive screening action. Evans, in particular, took advantage of the open space with drives to test the defense. He finished with a season-high 8 points and 6 assists, including 6 points and 4 assists after halftime, in his first action since the Tennessee team on Dec. 5.
Evans, who played 21 minutes, looked much more comfortable this time than at Wisconsin, which was the first attempt at major minutes following offseason surgery. In that 60-54 victory, an out-of-synch Evans produced 0 points and 0 assists in 16 minutes.
“I’m a man of God and I feel like he gave me a second chance at that. The Wisconsin game, I was thinking about the wrong things and I was very selfish,” Evans said. “This time around, I just wanted to be a team player, do the things I can do, and get my guys open shots. If it’s there, if there’s an opportunity to score, then be there and accept the minutes that Coach Bennett was going to give me. That’s what I did tonight.”
Of course, considering how the second half started, the Cavaliers needed to come up with a defensive response in order to make Evans’ return a happy one. Trailing 31-26, the Hoos gave up a 3-pointer to Reggie Bullock and a fairly easy pull-up jumper to Marcus Paige immediately after Bennett’s early second half timeout. Unlike the Old Dominion game where the Virginia defense fell apart after a hot second half start from Dimitri Brim, the Cavaliers responded this time around.
UVa blocked 6 shots against UNC.
UVa allowed just 16 points in the final 16 minutes of action. North Carolina opened the second half by making 5 of its first 6 shots, but after the aforementioned Atkins’ block the Hoos clamped down. The Tar Heels made just 6 of 20 attempts (30%) the rest of the way and committed 5 turnovers. UNC finished 19-of-51 shooting (37.3%) for the game. The 52 points represent the season low for the Heels.
Cavalier forward Akil Mitchell , who posted 7 points and 11 rebounds despite nursing a high ankle sprain, said that it was important to answer the call defensively in order to get this victory.
“Been there, done that. We saw what happened at ODU and I think everybody – the coaches, the young players, everybody – learned from that,” Mitchell said. “We were able to say ‘Look, the same thing has happened before. Let’s bounce back and let’s respond in the right way.’ I really think the crowd behind us kind of helped too.”