BLACKSBURG - Virginia’s highly-touted defensive reputation might have been bruised a bit Thursday night, but the Cavaliers survived Mr. Green, The Scoring Machine, and accomplished a feat no other Wahoos have done since before Buzzy Wilkinson suited up.
UVa couldn’t stop the nation’s leading scorer, Virginia Tech senior guard Erick Green, who turned Cassell Coliseum into his personal Pop-A-Shot venue. Didn’t matter.
The Cavaliers, No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense, brought their own fireworks to town in the form of freshman Evan Nolte and junior Joe Harris, who lit up the night with nine of Virginia’s 11 3-pointers (most since 10 vs. N.C. State in 2011).
A 74-58 win over the Hokies is considered an offensive explosion for Virginia, which has only scored more than 74 against an ACC opponent a handful of times in coach Tony Bennett’s four seasons at the helm. After struggling to score in their only two other road games in conference play this month, the fact that the Wahoos have shown an offensive pulse in their last two wins has to be encouraging for fans.
Bennett’s squad connected on 11-for-23 shots from Bonusphere, too much for the defensively challenged Hokies to overcome. As a result, Virginia won its third straight in Blacksburg for the first time since 1947. It should be noted that the series was played in various spots around the state until recently, but UVa is now 15-4 in Cassell.
“Man, it feels great to take three in a row here,” said a smiling senior guard Jontel Evans. “My first year here it was terrible. They weren’t kind to us here or in Charlottesville, so it feels nice to go 3-0 here since then.”
Evans drew the night’s toughest assignment in trying to shut down or at least limit Green. Couldn’t be done. Green blitzed Virginia on an 11-for-18 shooting night and hit 10 free throws.
“Everything was contested … he’s just a good player,” said Evans, one of at least three Wahoos thrown at the Tech shooter. “He takes some tough shots and he makes some tough shots. He got his but we got the win and that’s all that matters.”
Bennett’s plan wasn’t one of those cut-the-head-off-the-monster and the body dies kind of deals. He wanted to make Green earn his points, and boy, did he. But the idea was to prevent the other Hokies from hurting Virginia offensively.
That strategy worked pretty well. The rest of the Hokies collectively hit 8-of-25 field goal attempts.
Meanwhile, Harris and Nolte were raining down three’s on Tech all night long. The Wahoos had jumped on Florida State early last Saturday in Charlottesville, hitting seven treys in the first half and blowing the doors off the Seminoles.
The Hokies got the same barrage (eight UVa 3’s in the first half) and barely survived a 24-2 run midway through the second half. Up until then, the Cavaliers had taken Tech’s best offensive shot and trailed 17-10. But the Hokies, now 11-7, 2-3, never really recovered from the visitors’ point flurry.
Nolte was golden, sinking 6 of 12 shots, 5 of 9 from behind the arc, for a career-high 18 points in his second straight start for ailing forward Darion Atkins. Harris was ablaze as well, 6-for-9, 4-for-6 from Bonusphere, for 17.
“We’re not a great offensive team, and I don’t pretend to be,” said Bennett after watching his team improve to 13-5, 3-2. “I want us to be a team that gets good looks and executes. I know 23 (3-point attempts) is a lot, but they were good looks for the most part.”
His team hit on 47.8 percent of those 23 attempts and there was a reason why.
For one, Nolte clocked 34 minutes, much more than he was getting before Atkins injury (stress reaction to his shin). For another, Nolte’s presence allows Virginia’s offense to spread the floor a bit more because of his perimeter skills over Atkins’ inside strengths.
It didn’t hurt that Nolte exhibited some good smarts for a rookie.
“Evan does a good job of moving without the ball,” said Harris. “He kept telling us how his guy (Tech’s C.J. Barksdale) had a tough time guarding him off the screens.”
So, forwards Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey focused hard on setting flare screens that prevented Barksdale from getting to his destination and giving Nolte wide-open looks all night long.
Harris was getting looks, too. While Wake Forest wisely focused on not allowing the Cavalier hot-shot to get room for the jumper and disrupted his rhythm, Tech failed in that department and paid the price.
If Virginia’s talented freshmen keep advancing at this pace, watch out. The Cavaliers have to be kicking themselves over blowing that game to ODU before Christmas, which clearly knocked them back.
Still, the way these rookies are playing, well, they’re not playing like rookies any more.
Nolte has been solid in all phases of his game. Tobey is coming on strong and has exhibited great shooting touch for a guy his size. Justin Anderson is coming on so strong of late that he’s threatening to blow the roof off any arena he steps in, and Teven Jones has held his own at the point.
Harris said a week ago that these freshmen are more advanced than his heralded class of “Six Shooters” were a couple of years ago and they’ve done nothing to disprove his statement.
“They were composed … they looked comfortable out there,” Bennett said of his new class. “I liked what I saw in them.”
The freshmen combined for 42 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists (6 by Anderson), 5 steals and 2 blocks.
“They played outstanding,” Evans said of the frosh. “They didn’t play like freshmen tonight. They played more like seniors. Nolte is really emerging and the other guys played their roles.”
Mitchell, who had eight and eight, was all smiles as he left the building. He said it would be heavenly ride back to Charlottesville.
“This was huge for our program to come in here and win three straight times,” Mitchell grinned. “Me and Joe aren’t from here so we might not have grown up around the rivalry and the blood that goes on, but this game is meaning more to us every time we play them.”
Winning in Blacksburg is always special for a Wahoo, but this one won’t mean a thing if the Cavaliers can’t follow it up with a home win in a short turnaround Saturday against Boston College.