One year ago, the Hoos were lethargic in their final game before Christmas and paid for it in the form of a devastating loss to a bad ODU team. Tonight, the Hoos were lethargic in their final game before Christmas, but this time UVA escaped unscathed with a 66-56 victory over Norfolk State. With the win, Virginia improves to 9-3 with one game remaining before ACC play begins.
UVA earned the win with two bursts of sound and inspired basketball. Out of the gates, the Hoos grabbed a quick 11-4 lead four minutes into the game, behind a new-look small starting lineup. London Perrantes, Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, Justin Anderson, and Darion Atkins were the starting five, as Akil Mitchell came off the bench for the first time this year. Anderson, who led the team with 14 points and 8 rebounds, contributed with two FGs and two assists in that early run. Harris finished the game with 12 points
After struggling offensively for the first ten minutes, Norfolk State had the Hoos on their heels for the remainder of the half, cutting the lead to 32-26 at halftime. Coming out of the locker room, UVA played some of its most lackluster ball of the season, leading to a timeout from an enraged Tony Bennett. While crediting NSU's offense, he told the Daily Progress that "To start the way we did in the second half was unacceptable."
Bennett's timeout sparked a 20-5 Wahoo run, allowing the team to open up a 15 point lead with eight minutes to play, but the Spartans would once again come back to within 7 just four minutes later.
Virginia once again struggled to possess the ball. After a two week break in which the coaching staff emphasized ball security, the team turned the ball over on 20.5% of possessions, right at their season average. Justin Anderson turned it over 3 times, with Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon adding 2 more each. His second turnover, when a Norfolk State defender grabbed the ball away from an unfocused Brogdon, incited another angry lecture from Coach Bennett. Bennett has shown some fire this season, but never as much as when Brogdon was caught napping.
Tony Bennett has clearly been thinking about how to tighten the rotation, acknowledging after the game that this was the reason why Anthony Gill didn't see the floor in the first half. He noted that while players may be naturally frustrated, they understood the situation. Gill did provide a burst when he entered in the second, scoring a quick 7 points in 10 minutes. Gill's game demonstrates the dilemma the coaching staff faces in determining how to divvy up minutes. The frontcourt particularly is loaded with skilled players, and their strengths all lie in different areas of their game. Unfortunately, it's impossible to combine Gill's offensive presence with Atkins's defensive effort and athleticism.
In the free-throw department, Joe Harris seems to be recovering from his funk with a 6-7 effort from the line. However, after missing all 4 of his attempts versus UNI, Akil Mitchell went 2-6 this time. Something looked different about Mitchell's stroke tonight, as his shots had much more arc to them. I guess the team has to have somebody with mental blocks against shooting free throws at all times. (As a whole, the Hoos shot 27-39 (69%) from the free-throw line).
Looking ahead, UVA begins a very difficult 5-game stretch that features 4 road games. UVA heads to Tennessee next Monday, then starts ACC play on the road at Florida State. The Hoos play a home game against Wake Forest, then head to the road once more to face NC State and Duke. There's no tougher stretch all season, as KenPom shows that the Hoos will be favored in just 2 of the 5 (vs. Wake and @ NCSU) - his system expects 2.6 wins. Thus, a 3-2 record would be a mild success, while a 4-1 showing should have Wahoo fans jumping for joy.
The real issue is that it's time for UVA to turn up its intensity-level...and keep it up. Virginia shouldn't need angry timeout speeches to launch it to stretches of sound ball. The team must play smart, focused, and intense from start to finish to win, especially on the road, at Tennessee and in the ACC. The team has the talent to get it done, and the leadership from Joe Harris and Justin Anderson to keep them focused. Now that the "warm-up" games are officially over, it's time to put something together.