UVa’s Justin Anderson posted 15 points and 4 assists.
A dismal night at the free throw line and too many turnovers made Virginia’s first round NIT game with Norfolk State an ugly affair, but the Hoos escaped Tuesday’s tilt with a 67-56 victory. Justin Anderson and Akil Mitchell led UVa with 15 points each as that duo took full advantage of NSU’s fullcourt press late to help put the game away for the hosts.
Anderson said after the game he expected the hard-fought, chippy contest that unfolded because it was an in-state school trying to take down the big university.
“I knew this was a hungry team. Just watching them last year and being a Virginia native, I kind of took it personally. We were going against another Virginia team and they were going to come in and try to beat the state school just as ODU did,” Anderson said. “That bad taste I got from ODU came back to my memory. I knew they were going to come in hungry and they were going to fight. A lot of people look at our school and think we’re a bunch of soft guys and all of that, but we’re a tough team and I loved how we battled back. We played through all of the jawing that they did. We stuck to our system and I think that’s why we were successful.”
The Cavaliers (22-11) had to claw tooth and nail for the outcome thanks to poor free throw shooting. While the Hoos made 22 of 37 freebies for the game (59.5%), they spent much of the night in the 40’s. Improved shooting over the final 5 minutes pulled up the percentage as the team made 12 of 16 in the final 4:21. The freshmen set the tone at the line where they posted 15-of-21 shooting for the night. Anderson led the way by making 7 of 9 at the charity stripe, including all 6 of his attempts in the final 5 minutes. Mike Tobey made 3 of 4, Evan Nolte hit 4 of 6, and Teven Jones knocked down 1 of 2.
For the game, Anderson tallied 15 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 blocked shot, and 1 steal. Nolte added 7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 blocked shot, and 1 steal, while Tobey posted 5 points and 3 boards. Jones checked in early and tied a career-high by making 2 triples.
“They’re really coming along. Justin Anderson , he’s playing great. He’s a real spark,” UVa senior Jontel Evans said. “Teven came off the bench today and hit two big 3’s, that was good for him. This group of guys, their future is bright. I know they’re going to lead this program into the right direction.”
Then there were the turnovers. Virginia finished with 17 turnovers in the game and gave the ball away 10 times in the first half, sometimes throwing it into the stands nowhere near an intended target. Most of the early problems came against what appeared to be a varying match-up zone from the Spartans. The later issues came against fullcourt pressure, though that seemed to settle out for most of the second half. For the game, the upper classmen combined for 12 of the turnovers; Mitchell had 5, while Joe Harris and Evans posted 4 and 3, respectively.
Mitchell ended up with 15 points and 11 rebounds, his 12th double-double of the season and his seventh straight game in double figures for scoring. Harris recorded 12 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Evans added 6 points, 3 assists, and 4 steals.
Still, the missed free throws and turnovers appeared to indicate that there was a lack of focus, particularly in the first half, from the Hoos.
Akil Mitchell scored in double figures for the seventh straight game.
“The focus wasn’t really there, but our effort was there. Either Sunday [or Monday] our effort has to be better and our focus has to be better,” Evans said. “I’m not sure [why it wasn’t there], but hopefully my teammates weren’t taking them lightly. Norfolk State is a great team. I think they went undefeated in their conference. I don’t know why the focus wasn’t there. Hopefully we can get it back for the next game.”
With all of those issues on the offensive end, the Wahoos trusted in ol’ reliable to get the win: defense. After Norfolk State made 3 of its 5 shots to take an 8-0 lead, Virginia clamped down on defense. The Spartans (21-12) made just 2 more field goals before intermission to finish 5-of-27 shooting (18.5%) in the first 20 minutes. That number only improved slightly after halftime when NSU made 9 of 25 attempts (36.0%) to finish the game at 26.9%. Rob Johnson and Pendarvis Williams led the visitors with 16 points each, but the duo combined to shoot 9 of 30 from the floor.
Some strong free throw shooting (22 of 28) and 12 offensive rebounds kept Norfolk State in touch while UVa struggled. In fact, Malcolm Hawkins cut the Cav lead to 47-44 on an offensive putback with 5:37 to go. But the Wahoos dialed in down the stretch to get the win.
“We got just enough stops, obviously, to be successful. But, we had trouble handling the ball, making free throws, keeping them off the glass and those things kind of cost us,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Enough plays were made on the defensive end, and a few buckets here and there just to keep Norfolk State at bay. … It was not a pretty game at all, but again at this point, to be able to come away with one not playing well is important.”
UVa advanced to face St. John’s in the NIT’s second round. That game will be played either Sunday, March 24 or Monday, March 25.