UVa’s freshmen propelled the team to its second straight NIT win. Mike Tobey (left) scored 10 points, while Taylor Barnette added 13.
Outside observers often consider the NIT to be a great postseason training ground for teams with young players. If that’s true, Virginia’s freshmen are making the most of the experience. For the second straight game, the Cavaliers’ youngsters set the tone as the team defeated St. John’s 68-50 on Sunday.
The Hoos have won 19 straight games at the John Paul Jones Arena where they will host Iowa on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.
“I thought the first years really gave us a lift and played very good basketball. That was pivotal in this game,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Made good decisions, obviously shot it well enough from the line, just did some nice things.”
Indeed, the UVa freshmen impacted the game all over the stat sheet. Justin Anderson led the charge with a career-high 18 points on the strength of 9-of-10 shooting at the free throw line. He added 4 assists, 3 blocked shots, and 2 rebounds as well.
Two other freshmen joined Anderson in double figures. Taylor Barnette, who had disappeared from the rotation midway through the schedule, checked in for 13 minutes and scored a career-high 13 points. Barnette made 3 of 5 triples and tallied 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 blocked shot. Mike Tobey , meanwhile, recorded 10 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 blocked shot to the cause while making 5 of 6 shots. Teven Jones chipped in 5 points and 1 assist too.
In total, that quartet scored 46 of the team’s 68 points. Those four freshmen also sparked the Hoos (23-11) in the first half after St. John’s (17-16) took an early 8-4 lead. After the Red Storm’s Phil Greene IV slammed home a transition dunk, Bennett called a timeout with 11:43 to go before intermission and inserted Jones, Tobey, and Evan Nolte . Up until that point, the Cavaliers had been fairly stagnant offensively while trying to deal with a 1-2-2 zone press that fell back into a 3-2 zone.
On the first possession after the timeout, the freshmen made an immediate impact to spark a 20-3 run that led to a 24-11 lead for the hosts. Nolte caught the ball in the high post and when the zone collapsed, he kicked out an assist when Jones buried a 3-pointer. Nolte secured a steal on the ensuing defensive trip and UVa took the lead for good before St. John’s settled its defense. Jones fired a wing pass to Joe Harris , who dumped it down low to Tobey for an uncontested lay-up and the 9-8 edge. After a Red Storm timeout, Tobey added a driving lay-up as well.
Barnette got in on the act when he subbed in just before the under-8 media timeout. He checked in at the 8:09 mark and posted an assist on a Jontel Evans ‘ transition lay-up, a return-the-favor lay-up from Evans, and two 3-pointers in less than 3 minutes of action. He went on to have a career day and received a standing ovation from the crowd along with a lot of smiles from his teammates.
Anderson closed the freshmen’s big half with 5 points in the final 4 minutes before intermission as Virginia led 32-21 at the break.
“Everybody played great: Justin, Mike, Evan, Teven. Everybody has been coming off the bench and doing their thing,” Barnette said. “We’ve been playing together and playing our roles, and that’s really worked out well for us. We’re motivated to play in every game. We were able to come out, play, and help get the win.”
With the freshmen providing much of the heavy lifting in the first half, the defense did the rest. St. John’s managed just 33.9% shooting (21 of 62), which including a 2-of-16 performance from 3-point range. The Red Storm came up with just 7 assists, but had 14 turnovers. Greene led STJ with 18 points, while Jakaar Sampson added 14.
UVa effectively shut down the visitors’ attempts at one-on-one isolation situations and St. John’s couldn’t get much going with its screen-and-roll game either. Evans said the Hoos’ defense was effective for the afternoon.
UVa’s Joe Harris had 7 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal.
“It was a lot of iso, especially in the second half when they started playing desperate. They needed to get buckets so they weren’t even running an offense, it was just iso,” Evans said. “The defense was really good. They’re not a good jump-shooting team so we were able to pack it in and contain their drives.”
The Cavaliers hope that the Pack Line defense and the emergence of a balanced scoring line-up can provide another NIT win. The winner of that contest with Iowa advances to the NIT Semifinals at Madison Square Garden during the first week in April (Semifinals on Tuesday, Championship on Thursday). Remember, the Hoos missed out on a trip to MSG in the Preseason NIT when Delaware handed UVa its only home loss of the season; Evans and Jones combined for 3 minutes in that game due to injuries.
Anderson said he is relishing the opportunity to play in the NIT and he hopes the ride continues for as long as possible.
“Being a freshman you are just happy to play basketball, happy to living your freshman season. I don’t want it to get old – I want to keep playing as long as I can. We have an opportunity to keep playing basketball so why not take it?” Anderson said. “My dream growing up personally, coming from the little small town where I come from, was to play basketball on TV. And we were on ESPN today, that’s my dream so I look at it like that. You’re on TV and you get a chance to perform with your team. We took an advantage of the opportunity presented and we did well.”