In an brunch-time game at John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia easily defeated St. John's 68-50 to claim a spot in the NIT's version of the Elite 8. Virginia took the lead early on a 20-3 first-half run and never looked back, smothering the Red Storm on defense and getting strong offensive performances from the promising first-year class. The win puts the Hoos just one game away from Madison Square Garden and the NIT Final Four.
Wahoo fans endured a few nervous minutes early on, as the team came out sluggish against SJU's soft full court press and zone defense, both of which UVA has had trouble attacking this season. Down 8-4, Virginia called timeout and sent Evan Nolte, Teven Jones, and Mike Tobey into the game. One minute later, it was Mike Lavin who called timeout after a Jones three-pointer and Tobey bucket put the Hoos up for good, jumpstarting that 20-3 run.
In the second half, UVA didn't completely ice the game until the final minutes, but the Red Storm never seriously threatened. After a bizarre sequence in which Justin Anderson fell to the ground after...rubbing shoulders with a St. John's player around their huddle, the Hoos developed a second wind of energy, scoring nine straight points to extend a 16 point lead with 7 to play. SJU did manage to come within 9 points with 3 minutes to play, but UVA scored 10 of the final 11 down the stretch.
First-years scored 24 of 32 first-half points and 46 of 68 overall. Anderson was the star of the game for Virginia, scoring 18 on 4 of 8 shooting, while sinking 9 of his 10 free throws. He also made the energy plays and pinpoint passes that fans are accustomed to seeing, coming up with 3 big blocks and notching 4 assists. Taylor Barnette also had a big night, finishing with a season-high 13 points, including 3 of 5 three-point shooting, and showing serious improvement on the defensive end. Tobey had 10 points on 5 of 6 shooting, and Jones provided a nice lift off the bench.
Tony Bennett showed some early innovation, usoing a new lineup that included Jontel Evans playing alongside both Jones and Barnette to beat the Johnnies' zone late in the first half. As a team, UVA shot 24 of 44 (54.6%), including 5 of 15 from behind the arc. After a slow start against the St. John's zone, the Hoos found a nice offensive rhythm, with 79% of its field goals coming off assists to SJU's 33.3%
Wahoo fans held their breaths when Joe Harris came up limping after tweaking his knee in the end of the first half, but showed no negative effects after halftime. He finished with just 7 points, his lowest output since late January, but added 4 assists.
An area of concern for UVA was St. Johns's domination of the boards. The Red Storm came into the game ranked 218th on the offensive glass and 317th on defense, but rebounded 36% of its own misses, compared to UVA's 23%, a feature coach Bennett called "disturbing." Bennett would probably like to see a decrease in turnovers, as the Hoos finished with 12, but could be happy about forcing 14 against a team that is one of the nation's best at holding on to the ball.
The Iowa Hawkeyes visit JPJ on Wednesday at 7PM. Iowa is one of the best teams remaining in the NIT, coming in at 22nd in the nation on KenPom. The Hawkeyes own wins over Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota, but are just 2-8 on the road, their lone wins coming at unimposing Penn State and Northwestern - Wahoo fans may recall their early-season loss at Virginia Tech as well. The last time Virginia had a home NIT game with a trip to the World's Most Famous Arena on the line did not go well, with UVA losing to Delaware in its only loss at JPJ this season. Here's to a big crowd and a bettter result Wednesday night!