December 6, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A game Virginia had owned throughout was slipping away Wednesday night when Tony Bennett called timeout with 5:15 remaining to design a play.
As scripted, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell ran a textbook pick-and-roll on the right wing, Harris assisting on Mitchell's layup, slowing a Tennessee comeback and pushing the Cavaliers toward a 46-38 victory.
'Twas a fitting connection between Virginia's best and among its most-improved players.
The prevailing question about the Cavaliers this season is can they overcome the loss of All-ACC forward Mike Scott, who as a senior averaged 18 points and 8.3 rebounds en route to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks.
Neither of their frontcourt starters this year, Mitchell and Darion Atkins, is yet a Scott-caliber talent, but both continued encouraging early-season play against the Vols.
Mitchell, a 6-foot-8 junior, had game-high of 13 points and 12 rebounds, his fourth double-double in nine outings. Atkins, a 6-8 sophomore, contributed eight points, five rebounds, three blocked shots and outstanding defense on 6-8, 270-pound Jarnell Stokes, whose five points were eight below his average.
"Seeing Darion and Akil have a very nice stretch of basketball and coming into their own," Bennett said. "The last couple games (against Wisconsin and Green Bay) they maybe had an advantage athletically with their quickness. … Dealing with some of the athletes that were out there today, I thought they responded to this challenge."
On Virginia's first possession, the 222-pound Atkins gathered a pass on the left block. He pump-faked Kenny Hall not once but twice. He pivoted, showing unusual patience for a young player.
Finally, Atkins sensed some space, and when the Vols elected not to trap, he made a quick turn-around jumper reminiscent of Scott. It wasn't a fluke. Moments later, Atkins again posted on the left block. This time he schooled Quinton Chievous.
"It's going to have to be by committee," Bennett said of replacing Scott. "I think this team is fairly balanced when you look at it. … They're quick, they're active. I keep repeating that, but that makes a difference on the defensive end, on the glass.
"Darion has a soft touch as you saw early, and Akil's really developed some of his moves. Some of his (five) offensive rebounds were very impressive tonight. I thought there were a couple that were high-level. Extending the play, giving us another chance, that stuff's just significant for us offensively."
Indeed, Virginia (7-2) isn't going to score 80 points often, even when top gun Harris (13 points and six rebounds Wednesday) is at his best. Every possession counts, especially against like-minded defensive opponents such as Tennessee (4-3).
Games last week forewarned how this one was likely to unfold.
Virginia defeated Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, 60-54, a notable road conquest rooted, naturally, in Bennett's pack-line defense. The Cavaliers limited the Badgers to 38 percent shooting and smothered them on critical possessions late.
But that was veritable shootout compared to what transpired two nights later in the SEC-Big East Challenge as Tennessee lost at Georgetown 37-36. Twitter mocked the contest throughout, and with good reason, considering that neither team scored in the final four minutes, no player scored in double figures, and the teams combined to miss 13-of-20 free throws.
Wednesday was marginally more tolerable as Virginia shot 35.8 percent, Tennessee 28.8.
The Cavaliers have four non-conference games remaining before opening ACC play Jan. 6, at home against North Carolina, and they should win all of them: Mississippi Valley State, Morgan State, Old Dominion and Wofford were a combined 7-19 as of Wednesday afternoon.
Claim those four and Virginia will start its ACC road at 11-2 and riding a 10-game winning streak. The Cavaliers entered conference play on an 11-game run last season and defeated Miami at home in the league opener on their way to the program's first NCAA tournament bid in five years.
Whether this team is similarly capable is far from being revealed. Point guard Jontel Evans reinjured his left foot Wednesday, creating more uncertainty than Bennett would like.
But his frontcourt appears surprisingly stable, with Mitchell and Atkins averaging a combined 22.4 points and 13 rebounds. If the pair maintains that production, Virginia will be much better than anyone expected.