Senior point guard Jontel Evans was sitting in Virginia’s training room Thursday, going through his daily rehab, hoping to get back on the court in time for Sunday night’s big ACC home opener against North Carolina.
About that time, a team manager dashed into the room asking for UVa trainer Ethan Saliba to come out to the court and attend to junior power forward Akil Mitchell, who had just turned his right ankle. Before Saliba had a chance to leave the training room, one of the coaches came to get him and said Mitchell’s ankle looked bad.
A few minutes later, Mitchell came hobbling into the training room and took a seat beside Evans.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh man, we really need this guy,’” Evans recalled his emotions at that moment.
Heading into Sunday night’s game, anyone who had spotted the Cavalier players coming into John Paul Jones Arena might have mistaken them for a M*A*S*H unit. Mitchell was wearing a protective boot on his ankle. Center Mike Tobey had his face mask for his broken nose. And then there was Evans.
Virginia, somehow a three-point favorite by the oddsmakers, had kept the public in the dark over the injuries. Mitchell had even instructed his mom, back in Charlotte, N.C., to take down a Facebook post about his injury. With the health status of two key players up in the air, could the Cavaliers take down the Tar Heels? UNC had dominated the recent games in the series, winning nine of the last 10 and was the only ACC team to have never lost at JPJ.
After a shaky first half, the Cavaliers fell behind by eight (36-28, 16:23) to start the second. Normally, that’s all Carolina would need to put Virginia out of its misery. But not this time.
Not with a healthy Evans and a surprisingly healthy Mitchell. Mitchell was a bear on the boards in the second half, staking claim to nine rebounds, while Evans was a steadying force offensively with his drives to the basket and ballhandling (four assists and no turnovers the second half).
For the record, Virginia won 61-52, and as Evans said, made history as the first bunch of Wahoos to beat Carolina in this building.
For UVa coach Tony Bennett, it wasn’t as much that his Cavaliers won (improving to 11-3, 1-0 in the ACC), but how they won. This time, they didn’t fold against Carolina. Rather, they answered the Tar Heels with a 10-0 UVa run that sparked a 23-9 blitz over the next 11 minutes.
History? Yeah, but it meant more than that for a UVa team trying to find its identity. The Cavaliers thought they knew who they were after scoring an upset at Wisconsin in November. At least they had identified how they had to play to win. Somewhere along the way they lost sight of that vision in a loss to ODU before Christmas.
Virginia’s players will remember Sunday night for a couple of reasons. One, they pulled off the win against the big, bad Tar Heels, a team that had had their number way too often. Perhaps even more, they’ll remember the celebration.
Bennett, normally a mild-mannered sort of guy, walked into the locker room and announced to the team: “Fifteen seconds.”
Fifteen seconds of celebrating and then the Wahoos were putting this one behind them and turning their focus to Wednesday night’s game at Wake Forest.
“[Bennett] was like, ‘OK guys, 15 seconds, we’re going to dance for 15 seconds,’” said a smiling Mitchell afterward. “We figured we were going to do our big ‘Jump Around Hoos’ celebration where we jump around in a circle. But he had a manager come in here and play music and we were like, ‘What in the world is going on?’
“At that point, Coach Bennett turned up the music and started dancing in front of all of us,” Mitchell said. “I really wish I had taped it. He’s actually pretty good.”
None of the players had ever seen Bennett dance before, but they were both amused and impressed.
“It was hilarious,” said junior Joe Harris, who led the Cavaliers with 19 points.
“Coach said he likes to dance, but we’d never seen him,” Evans chipped in. “He’s got moves though. I’m glad he did it. We celebrated, now it’s on to the next one.”
Bennett had plenty of reason to dance. The Cavaliers are now 4-0 in ACC openers under his guidance and it made the fifth straight year that Virginia had won its conference opener.
He was probably dancing, too, about his team controlling the pace of the game, a critical factor if the Cavaliers were going to pull this one off. Carolina came to town ranked third nationally in scoring (83.6 ppg) and second in assists (19.5). Virginia was ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (50.7). Something had to give.
It was the Tar Heels.
Coach Roy Williams mentioned beforehand that everyone talks about speeding up Virginia’s pace but no one can do it.
The Cavaliers held UNC to a season-low 52 points and nine assists. Same thing happened last year in Charlottesville, although Carolina won that game 54-51. Still, it was the Heels’ lowest scoring output of the entire season and their second-worst shooting performance last season (33.3 percent).
This time around, UVa entered the weekend allowing opponents to shoot an average of 35.3 percent, sixth-best in the country. Carolina shot 37.3.
Certainly, two huge keys for Virginia was the presence of Mitchell and Evans, two players somewhat in doubt earlier in the week.
“I was teetering back-and-forth until about an hour before game time,” Mitchell said after finishing with 7 points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes. “It was literally a miracle that I played. [Saliba] said I was a week ahead of schedule for a high ankle sprain. I couldn’t even tell you how in the world I’m able to walk on it. I guess once you get into the game, you don’t think about what hurts. You just play through it.”
Maybe the light blue jerseys had something to do with it.
Mitchell grew up in Charlotte and never got a serious look from the Tar Heels. All his friends back home are UNC fans, so he heard plenty of junk about losing to Carolina.
“That had a little bit to do with it,” Mitchell grinned. “This was a bigger game to me personally. I hadn’t beaten Carolina in my career. So, to beat them at home and to overcome the ankle injury. I never thought I would be in this position.”
Apparently, lots of critics never through Mitchell would ever be an effective ACC caliber player, including several of the schools that snubbed him. He had a point to prove and found a way to do so.
After suffering the injury on the very first drill of Thursday’s practice, Mitchell thought he’d be out for a while but did everything possible to make it back so unexpectedly soon.
“I had three layers of tape on it,” he smiled. “I have been in ice machines about six hours a day, taking something to reduce the swelling, going through electro-stimulation. I’ve been in the training room seven to eight hours a day.”
In fact, he was on crutches Friday.
Someone spotted him arriving to the arena wearing the boot on Sunday.
“Yeah, and I’m leaving in one, too,” Mitchell chuckled, which left everyone within an earshot wondering about his status for Wake and Saturday’s game at Clemson.
Evans’ presence was equally huge, if not more so. After losing to ODU, the Cavaliers seemed to miss not only his playing ability but his leadership. He has a calming effect on the team.
“We need Jontel running the team, getting in the paint, defending, doing what he does best,” Mitchell said. “We understand that when things are going shaky offensively, we know he can get us into something because he’s a senior point guard.”
UNC’s Williams understood that, too.
“I thought Jontel coming in was big for them,” Williams said. “I thought the second half that Jontel was really big for them. We couldn’t stop him from getting to the basket.”
During that 23-9 rampage, Evans had three nice drives to the basket, using his experience to get past UNC’s Dexter Strickland and to loop in floaters over “the trees,” as the Wahoo guard described Carolina’s big men.
Meanwhile, Harris was also attacking the basket. Carolina’s defensive strategy was to take Harris out of his rhythm, not give him room to shoot the 3-pointers. So, Harris showed that he’s not a one-dimensional player and attacked the basket. He was 7-of-11 from the field, 2-for-4 from Bonusphere.
Harris was really glad to see Evans back in uniform.
“Jontel’s a veteran. He understands what Coach wants,” Harris said. “He’s very good at coming in and dictating the pace of the game and when he came in tonight he did a good job of slowing things down.”
Much to the Tar Heels’ dismay.
For Virginia, this was a statement game. Everyone was wondering if this team could get itself together and get back to the NCAA Tournament without Mike Scott. Some believe UVa is a tournament team with a healthy Evans, maybe not without him.
One thing was for sure, Evans knew the team was better than it had performed of late.
“I was frustrated watching us lose to Old Dominion,” Evans said. “Not because I wasn’t playing, but I knew my teammates were better than what they showed. We went into that game lackadaisical and got our butts handed to us. I think we learned from that.”
Maybe that’s what Bennett’s 15-second celebration was all about afterward. Remembering what it takes for this team to win before it packs its bags for a big weekend trip.
Whatever they’re paying Saliba, it isn’t enough.