Jontel Evans ‘ career ended with a loss in the NIT.
The Virginia men’s basketball team lost just two games at home this season. Unfortunately, both losses short-circuited NIT runs and prevented the Hoos from making a trip to Madison Square Garden. Delaware dealt the first defeat to UVa in November’s preseason event, while Iowa came to town on Wednesday night and ended the Cavaliers’ season with a 75-64 victory.
The Hawkeyes (24-12) advance to the NIT Semifinals in New York, while Virginia (23-12) packs up its equipment and says farewell to seniors Jontel Evans and Doug Browman.
“I feel a little down. I’m a little upset with myself. I feel like I didn’t have a great performance at all,” Evans said. “I just feel like I let my teammates down today.”
“We did talk about getting to Madison Square Garden. We weren’t fortunate enough to play there at the beginning of the season and it was a goal of ours as soon as we found out we were playing in the NIT,” UVa junior Joe Harris said. “It’s really disappointing. I wish we were still playing. I wish we had a chance to go up and play in Madison Square Garden and a chance to win the NIT.”
The story of the game evolved around the physicality and offensive efficiency of Iowa. The Hawkeyes clogged the lane and challenged anything near the rim while fighting through screens to bother shooters on the outside too. The visitors held UVa to 38.0% shooting (19 of 50) for the night; the hosts also committed 16 turnovers with just 11 assists.
Virginia’s defense, meanwhile, couldn’t consistently slow down Iowa. For the game, the Hawkeyes shot 49.1% (26 of 53) and made all 15 of their free throw attempts. Even when they missed or the Cavaliers blocked a shot (UVa posted 8 blocks with a career-high 5 from Justin Anderson and a career-high 3 from Mike Tobey ), the visitors still found ways to score. Iowa piled up 17 second-chance points on 10 offensive rebounds; the team grabbed 37% of the missed shots of its own glass for the night.
Justin Anderson posted a new career high with 24 points.
The offensive efficiency hinged on the ability to constantly set solid screens while making Virginia fight through that physical contact time after time. The Hawkeyes also created some match-up problems with 6’6″ Roy Devyn Marble frequently at the point guard slot. He finished with 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Adam Woodbury and Zach McCabe added 10 points each.
“It’s tough. I mean that’s how we play. They kind of gave us a taste of our own medicine,” Harris said. “It’s difficult to guard and it wears on you. They’re well coached and they knew coming in that they wanted to grind us out defensively. Coach talked about before the game that our reputation is that we’re difficult to score against and the longer the possession plays out the harder it gets, but I felt like they did a really good job of cutting hard and being physical, especially on their screens. All of their guys seemed to get a body on us and were screening well.”
“Their persistence with screening, running off screens, running the offense hard, and being patient, they broke us down a few times and got us in transition too. So they did well,” Cavalier junior Akil Mitchell said.
For the Hoos, the offensive end proved to be challenging with a disciplined Hawkeye team making everything difficult. As has been the case for all three rounds of the NIT, freshmen led the way with Anderson setting a new career high with 24 points. It’s the 12th time this season that Anderson reached double figures, including all three NIT contests. Anderson led the Cavaliers in scoring, rebounding (6-tied), blocks (5), steals (3), and, unfortunately, turnovers (4-tied) in the game. Tobey joined Anderson in double figures with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting. He added 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 assist, and 1 steal.
Virginia also picked up another double-digit scoring night from Harris, who posted 11 points, 1 assist, and 4 turnovers. He recorded 10 points or more in 31 of the team’s 35 games this season. Mitchell, meanwhile, added 9 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers. Paul Jesperson and Teven Jones rounded out the scoring with 3 and 2 points, respectively.
“My teammates opened up spots for me. It’s nothing you tell yourself like I’m going to go in this game and do this and that. You get open looks and get what you can get. You’ve just got to step up and hit shots and I think I did a good job of stepping up and hitting shots that my teammates created for me,” Anderson said. “All I can do right now, you don’t understand how bad I want to get in the gym and get ready for next year. I can’t believe I’m a sophomore. That’ sick already. I just can’t wait to get back in the gym and get ready for next year.”
While the season ended without a trip to Madison Square Garden, the Cavaliers’ run in the NIT could become an important building block for a program trying not only to string together postseason appearances but postseason wins for the first time in 15 years. The returning players certainly are going to treat the experience of winning two NIT games and playing in a tournament as offseason motivation.
“You know what to expect. You know what it takes to get there. You know that the level of play steps up ten-fold once you get into postseason play,” Mitchell said. “For the younger guys, me, and Joe and everybody that is coming back, we’ve got a lot to look forward to. Especially coming off the NIT, we want to make the [NCAA] Tournament and this should motivate us and make us hungrier and hungrier.”
That’s exactly what coach Tony Bennett hopes his team gets out of this season’s postseason games.
“To play in these settings, to play in a pressure setting in a tournament, and to be able to win a couple games I think was good,” Bennett said. “For our younger guys to play and to show the signs that they did in this setting was good. To have a chance to try to get to Madison Square Garden, playing in the pressure setting, and to be in those situations is very positive. I take that as a great opportunity, great experiences for us.”