The UVA basketball team continued its winning ways, defeating the Phoenix of Wisconsin-Green Bay 67-51. While the performance wasn't as dominant as last season's suffocating 68-42 home win, the Hoos composed themselves and pulled away when they needed to, turning a tight first half into a laugher. With the victory, Virginia has won 5 straight and improved to 6-2 on the season; Green Bay, picked to finish 3rd in the Horizon League, fell to 3-4.
The outcome wasn't assured during a first half in which UVA trailed 27-26 eighteen minutes in. Despite flashes of brilliance, especially from Akil Mitchell, who scored a career-high 20 minutes, lapses in shot selection and defensive intensity prevented the team from putting Green Bay away. But UVA scored the next 10 points, spanning both halves, part of a 25-9 run to seal the game. After the game, Tony Bennett pointed to the team's increased patience in the second half, passing up first shot chances for better second shots.
The aforementioned Akil Mitchell had his way with the Phoenix defense, scoring his points on efficient 9 for 12 shooting and grabbing 9 rebounds. Joe Harris added 20 points as well, nailing 4 of 7 three-point attempts. Harris is now shooting 46% from behind the arc this season, despite a 1-7 effort in Madison.
Still, perhaps most encouraging was the play of someone who showed up with just 2 points in the box score, Jontel Evans. At Wisconsin, Jontel played just 16 minutes and showed rust, turning the ball over and playing out of the flow of the offense. Maturely, he recalled his thoughts after that game to VirginiaSports.com:
"Honestly, I was frustrated with myself, and that was very selfish of me," Evans recalled Saturday evening. "It was a great team win, and my team did really well, and all I could think about was myself, because I was frustrated I didn't play the way I was capable of playing.
"I should have been excited with my teammates, but I was kind of down about the way I played ... and that was no way for me to lead, being a senior. I really set a bad example to the young guys, and I just came in here and apologized and took that and decided just to be a good teammate. Even if things don't go my way, I still have to be positive."
Evans didn't start against Green Bay, but played 23 minutes to Teven Jones's 19, including a brief stretch where both played together. Jontel scored on a floater in the post, dished 7 assists, and grabbed 5 steals. Fans have enjoyed Teven Jones's play to date, and Teven will continue to contribute this season; however, it will be in a role spelling Jontel Evans, whose defensive presence and offensive development will win the Hoos games this season.
Despite the great success of the upperclassman Mitchell-Harris-Evans combo and contributions from the first-years off the bench, not everything went perfectly in Wahoo Land. Virginia turned the ball over a still-too-high 10 times and lost the rebounding battle, a good measure of an intensity gap in the game. Green Bay rebounded 22 of 26 Virginia misses (84.6%), with the Hoos finishing with a defensive rebounding rate of 28 for 37 (75.7%). Darion Atkins allowed an opponent to get away with an emphatic put-back for the second straight game, when he missed his box-out assignment. While Atkins did grab a game-high 11 rebounds, he cannot continue to show brief lapses on defense that lead to opponent points.
Tony Bennett explained to the Richmond Times-Dispatch after the game that the team's sloppy play led to his decision to have the starters finish the game, rather than sending in the reserves. "When they got sloppy, I was a little bit upset with them," Bennett said. "I'm not saying it was their penalty to have to finish it out, but they had to get themselves out of that."
Going forward, Virginia has 5 more chances to get ready for the start of ACC play, against North Carolina. Four of these are against teams rated worse than 200th in the nation by KenPom. One of them is against Tennessee, and that game is at JPJ on Wednesday. It's an important game for the Hoos, especially from the perspective of how UVA's out-of-conference performance will be evaluated. Despite a shaky start to the season, an 11-2 OOC performance with wins against the Volunteers and at Wisconsin and losses in games without key players would look pretty good.
Tennessee is 4-2 on the season and is coming off a 37-36 loss at Georgetown. (Yes, 37-36). Tennessee has been successful with it's strong defense, ranked 38th by KenPom, having success by limiting three-point attempts, forcing low percentage shots, and grabbing defensive rebounds (sound familiar?). They are one of the poorer teams in the nation at forcing turnovers.
The Hoos face Tennessee on Wednesday at 7PM; the game will be televised on ESPN3.