USA TODAY Sports
Despite an offensive performance to forget, UVA slid past Norfolk State 67-56 in the opening round of the NIT.
It wasn't pretty. Oh, it wasn't pretty. But the Wahoos lived to see another day, escaping their first-round matchup with Norfolk State with a 67-56 win. The teams were separated by just three points with under five minutes to play, but Justin Anderson took control down the stretch, scoring eight of his 15 points in those last minutes to lead the Hoos to an NIT round of 16 matchup against St. John's.
The Spartans got off to a fast start, jumping out to an 8-0 lead, but it looked like the Hoos had things under control by halftime, closing on a 10-2 run to lead 26-16. However, UVA was never able to extend its lead to beyond 11 points, allowing NSU to hang around and crawl back into the game late behind a litany of fouls and sloppy offensive play by both teams. It wasn't until Anderson hit four straight free throws, then a jumper, that Wahoo fans could breathe a final sigh of relief.
Virginia's offensive struggles were keyed by 17 turnovers, 10 in the first half. Passes consistently flew either far out of bounds or into the teeth of the NSU defense, as an exasperated Tony Bennett looked on. Though he was key on the boards, finishing with 11 rebounds, Akil Mitchell turned the ball over 5 times and struggled at times on both sides of the ball. The Hoos also shot just 22 of 37 from the free-throw line, with Mitchell sinking just 5 of 11.
Though UVA played shutdown defense for much of the first half, the game devolved into a free-throw shooting competition in the second, as a second-rate refereeing crew appeared to lose control of the game. Earl Walton, Tim Corner, and Clarence Armstrong (who, like Virginia, failed to qualify for the Big Dance) were consistently inconsistent, whistling frequent fouls on both sides, while also missing a blatant flagrant foul when a Spartan jabbed Evan Nolte across the face. That said, it was UVA's defense that was often caught out of position, especially in transition, against a poor offensive squad. NSU had a FTA/FGA of 53.8%, while UVA's was an absurd 88.1%.
Joe Harris scored just 12 points and was held to just 7 shots on the night. Point guard play was a (rare) bright-ish spot; Jontel Evans and Teven Jones scored 6 points and 7 points, respectively, on combined 5 of 6 shooting. Jones's two three-pointers sparked UVA back into the game when it fell behind early on.
In the end, despite a poorly played game, the Hoos won by simply being way too much better than Norfolk State to possibly lose to them at home. It wasn't the way that players, coaches, and fans wanted the Hoos to come out to start NIT play, but it will do...for this game only. St. John's will visit next on Sunday or Monday. The Johnnies beat St. Joseph's on a buzzer-beater earlier in the night to snap a skid in which they lost 5 straight and 7 of 8.
Virginia has the talent and coaching to beat a mediocre St. John's team; however, it will also have to regain and maintain its focus to win its 19th straight home game. It was nobody's dream to play in the NIT; but if the Hoos want to win this thing, they have to have the desire deep down to execute their game-plan and do it. It's been a long and grinding season, but a championship (of some sort) lies just four games ahead.