Akil Mitchell couldn’t hide a smile that stretched all the way from Charlottesville to Charlotte. He had been waiting for this moment for a long, long time.
Virginia’s 6-foot-8 senior rebounder had tasted victory over North Carolina once before (a nine-point home win last January), but this one was different. Blowing out the Tar Heels, one of the kings of college basketball, doesn’t come easy or often.
Mitchell doesn’t mind being one of the unsung heroes in such a win. In fact, he relishes his role of doing a lot of the dirty work. He’s more physical than he looks, plays tough defense, goes after rebounds like a bum after a ham sandwich, and has an occasional bit of flash to an otherwise ordinary offensive game that produces an ESPN moment.
After Mitchell and his Cavaliers dominated the Tar Heels on Monday night, (Pause here for a moment Wahoo Nation and soak it in … feel free to toss in your hallelujah chorus), Carolina coach Roy Williams spoke about how Tony Bennett had done such a great job of getting his players to buy into their roles.
“[Bennett] has done a lot better of a job with that than I have,” said Williams, a Hall of Famer.
It’s because of the unselfishness by Mitchell and his teammates to play as a team and not get caught up in minutes played and statistical jealousy that can eat away at a team’s solidarity. That was perhaps Bennett’s greatest challenge coming into this season, facing outside expectations of not just a good, but rather great season, and getting 10 talented players to accept their roles.
Virginia’s 76-61 pummeling of the Heels didn’t come easy, at least not in the first half. It was a one-point game with just under six minutes to go before the break, when Mitchell & Company closed it out with an 11-2 run.
Bennett still wasn’t happy at halftime. He didn’t like the way his team was rebounding and was disappointed in his team’s post trap. He challenged the Cavaliers, Mitchell in particular, to crash the glass harder the second half.
Mitchell did just that against a Tar Heel team determined to rule the paint. The Charlotte native, who grew up in a family that rooted routinely for Carolina blue, was a force the second half. He finished the game with 11 rebounds, including a precious eight defensive rebounds (something Bennett had harped about since the loss at Duke).
As a result, UVa held its own down low and improved to 14-5 overall, and more importantly, 5-1 in the ACC, while Carolina dropped into a tie for last place at 1-4.
“This feels so good,” said Mitchell, who also scored six points and played solid defense. “I talked to one of my old AAU coaches today and he’s a huge Carolina fan. He’s got posters and stuff all over the place. To be able to play a team like this, knowing my family back home is rooting for me, even against their favorite team, means a lot.”
Bennett felt like two things had to happen to hold onto the win. One was to slow down Carolina’s greyhound pace to something a little more palatable. The other was to fight the Heels jaw-to-jaw on the boards.
Mitchell acknowledged that his coach challenged him at the half to be more physical, more aggressive on the glass. That’s his calling card and the power forward responded.
“We keep telling him to get on the glass,” Bennett said. “Take what the defense gives you, and get the ‘X-Factor’ baskets and plays. That’s when Akil’s at his best. Manufacturing offense is not his strength. I have been proud of how he has fallen into his role to help us and help himself. I like where he is going.”
It was only a few weeks ago when neither Bennett or Mitchell really knew where the senior’s game was headed. Mitchell had lost his way. He confessed that he had lost touch with just who he was as a player and was trying to rededicate himself to rediscovering his identity.
Bennett, who can be a taskmaster and motivator when need be, was more than happy to show Mitchell the way.
Ever since then, the kid who was once cut from his junior high team has been an aggressive, physical rebounding machine.
“I was challenged at halftime to snag every rebound and so my mindset going back out there was to go get everything,” the fire-breathing Mitchell said. “Carolina is long and surprisingly physical, a lot more than people give them credit for.”
He helped the Cavaliers hold their own in a very physical game down low where UNC outscored UVa 36-30 in the paint and eked out the edge in the battle of the boards 39-38. UVa came up with 24 defensive rebounds, which kept the Tar Heels’ second-chance opportunities to score at a minimum.
“Virginia is a very unselfish team,” UNC’s Williams said. “They know who they are.”
That’s perhaps the greatest compliment that the Tar Heels coach could have paid Bennett, because that certainly wasn’t the case on that inexplicable night in Knoxville when even Bennett couldn’t answer that question in a 35-point blowout loss to Tennessee.
To have turned things around heading into conference play, will go down as brilliance when looking back on this season.
“It feels great to be 5-1 but I’d rather keep playing, keep rolling,” Mitchell said.
Virginia doesn’t play again until Saturday when rival Virginia Tech comes a callin’.
“We’re not satisfied, but confident,” Mitchell said. “At the end of four years, trying to build a program that can compete with the Duke’s, the Carolina’s, and the Syracuse’s is why we’re all here. I can’t say that we’ve arrived, but we’re knocking on the door.”
Duke heard the knock. Carolina and Florida State felt it. Mitchell doesn’t mind being the guy to knock the door down.