Joe Harris helped sweep VT with a career-high 26 points.
Don’t look now, but the Virginia men’s basketball team is scoring and scoring in bunches. That’s bad news for opponents.
The Cavaliers surpassed 70 points for the third straight game Tuesday night and dispatched Virginia Tech 73-55 in the process. The Hoos have averaged 68 points per game over the last eight games, 72.8 points in the month February, and 77 points in the last three outings.
Combine that with the always stingy Pack-Line Defense and opponents can develop a major migraine dealing with Virginia. The Cavaliers have posted a 7-1 record during the stretch of offensive growth and they own a record of 18-6 and 8-3 in the ACC for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Under Tony Bennett, UVa is 33-2 when scoring at least 70 points.
“I think that definitely makes us more dangerous, especially like you said because of the way we play defense,” Cav sophomore Paul Jesperson said. “If guys can keep producing like they are, I think we’re a pretty tough team to beat and I think we can compete with a lot of teams in Division I basketball.”
Not surprisingly, Joe Harris again led the scoring outburst with another scorching night of shooting. The junior poured in a career-high 26 points against the Hokies (11-13, 2-9 ACC) on 7-of-12 shooting. He has scored more than 20 points in three straight contests and averaged 21.8 over the last five outings. Harris has made 34 of his last 59 shots, a clip of 57.6% during that same quintet of games.
Harris set the tone in the first half against Virginia Tech by making all 5 of his 3-point attempts. He made three of those triples in the first 4:00.
“Joe is the best shooter on the team. I’ve seen Joe shoot the ball and be aggressive, but I’ve never seen him be aggressive like he was tonight,” senior guard Jontel Evans said. “It was just in his eyes. You could see his killer mindset and that he wanted to get the team going on offense. That’s what he did. Getting those first three three’s just got us off on a great start.”
“We hoped to slow him down a bit, but he came out of the gates blazing. Before we could make the switch and get someone else on him, he already had nine points on three 3-pointers right in our mouth,” VT coach James Johnson said.
The Cavaliers have done an excellent job of getting their leading scorer good looks in the past few weeks as well.
Akil Mitchell has scored in double figures 19 times this season. He had 17 against the Hokies.
“His footwork is good. You always start with that. He’s getting his set-up quicker and quicker. He was in rhythm and he’s got a nice compact shot. He can leave the floor, so he can get it off with his size,” Bennett said. “He’s really moving well. Guys are looking for him, kind of hitting him in stride when he’s open. It looks good. Like I said, the rotation’s good, the arc’s good, all that stuff. He shot it well certainly for the last few games. It’s not because people aren’t trying to guard him hard. I think his teammates are moving the ball and screening for him.”
It’s not a one-man show at Virginia, though. Akil Mitchell again joined Harris in double figures with a ACC career-high of 17 points. Mitchell played a zone-busting role on several trips when the Hokies went to a 2-3 zone and punctuated the victory with an alley-oop slam from Justin Anderson late in the game. Mitchell, who had hit 10 points or more in 19 games this season, added 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals.
As a team, UVa knocked down 9 of 19 3-pointers, a success rate of 47.4%. It is the fourth straight game where the Cavs have finished with at least 9 made shots from beyond the arc. Bennett said the team is using good ball movement and screening to create good offensive opportunities.
“Obviously we’re shooting the ball well. You can see that from 3. [We’re] sharing the ball. It’s an unselfish group,” Bennett said. “Joe being efficient like he is, you look at his last two stat games, and from an efficiency standpoint, it’s terrific. I thought Akil was all over the glass, and did some really good things. We had 8 fastbreak points, and some points off turnovers, which helped us. There’s a nice blend of offense going on besides Joe just shooting 3’s.”
While Harris sparked the Virginia offense coming out of the gates, the defense had a shaky start. In the first 9 minutes, Virginia Tech scored 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting. That gave the visitors an 18-17 lead at the 10:55 mark as Marshall Wood nailed a corner 3-pointer. UVa clamped down the rest of the way, though.
Over the final 10 minutes of the first half, the Cavaliers cobbled together a 19-5 run to lead 36-23 at intermission. The Hokies made just 2 of 12 shots during the final 11 minutes, something that carried over to the second half when they converted 9 of 26 attempts (34.6%). For the game, VT made 18 of 52 shots (34.6%).
Those struggles included guard Erick Green , who still managed to post 22 points thanks to an 11-of-13 performance at the free throw line. From the field, however, the Hoos harassed Green all night long to make him earn his points. He went 0 of 7 for 1 point in the first half before he made just 3 of 10 shots in the second half. Evans carried the heavy lifting defensively on Green for much of the night, but as is typical, the Pack Line helped as it is designed to do.
Green entered the game averaging 25.3 points per game, which leads both the ACC and the nation in scoring.
“It was pretty solid team defense on him, and Jontel was very strong and quick. Green got a couple open looks that he didn’t hit, but there weren’t a lot of them,” Bennett said. “You could see in the second half how he decided, ‘Alright, I’m going to try to draw fouls and get to the lane and score that way.’ He got a couple rhythm looks. But, Jontel was locked in and really worked against him, and that’s what you have to do. The other guys were certainly aware of him.”
“I was really locked in,” Evans said. “I told my teammates that I was going to waste all my energy on defense tonight. I wanted to show people that I’m still a good defender and what better chance is there than to go against one of the best players in the country? I think that I showed it today.”