Preseason NIT: Virginia wins home opener, defeats Fairfield 54-45

Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

After starting the year off with a tough loss at George Mason, the Hoos returned to the friendly confines of John Paul Jones Arena to notch their first win of the season against the Fairfield Stags

With a trip to Madison Square Garden in New York hanging in the balance, the Hoos hung tough early and pulled away late to earn a 54-45 win in their home opener over Fairfield. Joe Harris scored 15 points, nine of them in the second half, and provided a steady hand throughout to seal the win. The Hoos trailed by as many as 7 points in the first half, but slowly climbed back in the game to earn the victory.

The matchup is part of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Tomorrow, UVA will face off against either Penn or Delaware, with the winner heading to the Big Apple to compete against the likes of Michigan, Pitt, and Kansas State. A loss would mean two more home games against lesser opponents in Charlottesville. If the Hoos aspire to play basketball in late March, it is vital that they earn these two games against quality opponents, especially from an RPI perspective.

Though the story of the night was the showcase of Joe Harris's all-around game, it was a strong class of first-years that kept the Hoos in the thick of things in the first half. The team sputtered at times, turning the ball over and struggling on the offensive boards, highlighted by a 5 shot Fairfield possession. However, Taylor Barnette continued to limit mistakes during his time at the point, and the young class showed enough offensive firepower to overcome the occasional defensive lapse.

Evan Nolte finished with 11 points, two of them after he stole the Stags' in-bounds pass and laid the ball in as the first-half buzzer sounded, perhaps the play of the game for the team. Mike Tobey scored 6, showcasing his versatility; he scored a bucket each on a pick-and-roll, a jump hook, and a deep jumper. Justin Anderson scored 5 points on 1 of 5 shooting, but has made hustle plays on both sides of the ball, while proving his reputation as a dedicated, athletic defender.

The Daily Progress's Whitey Reid reported that Teven Jones, who missed the team's first game because of a team rules violation, expected to play, but pinched a nerve during warm-ups.

In the second half, Joe Harris dazzled, confidently hitting his jumper and getting to the basket off the dribble, while also facilitating for his teammates like a true point guard. His continued development is something for Wahoo fans to watch, especially when Evans and Malcolm Brogdons return to take his opponents' full attention off of him.

Virginia also dominated from the free-throw line. The Hoos shot 14 of 20 from the line; more importantly, 42.6% of UVA's shots were free-throws, compared to Fairfield's 12.5% (shooting 4 of 6).

Rotation-wise, Taylor Barnette and Joe Harris will likely split time at point guard again tomorrow unless Jontel Evans makes an earlier than expected return (he should suit up again Saturday). Doug Browman struggled in limited time, turning the ball over three times. Darion Atkins generally remained behind Tobey, Akil Mitchell, who scored 11 points on 4 of 11 shooting, and Evan Nolte, who spent time at the 4. Tobey has work to do on defense, but his long frame and offensive versatility likely make up for these shortcomings.

Defensively, Virginia was improved, albeit against a somewhat weaker opponent, from its showing against George Mason. The length of players like Paul Jesperson and Anderson consistently bothered Fairfield. After making 7 of its first 12 three-pointers, Virginia changed matchups and started to rotate better; Fairfield would miss their final 10 shots from downtown.

Notably, the 53 possession tempo was slower than any game in the Bennett era.

After a poor showing by fans in the home opener, the UVA faithful's next opportunity to cheer on the Hoos is just hours away. Tuesday evening's tip-off time has not yet been officially announced, but all indications point to another 7PM game on ESPN3.

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