Tony Bennett isn’t about to replace Phil Jackson as the Zen master of basketball. You won’t find him having his team sit in a dark, empty gym while meditating.
Virginia’s coach found another way to get to the inner being of seven-foot senior center Mike Tobey this week. It couldn’t have come at a better time, just in time for the postseason.
Bennett met Tobey for lunch this past week and talked to his big man about what he could do to help the Cavaliers enjoy a healthy postseason run. Again, nothing magical, no meditation required, but Jackson would have admired Bennett’s tactics just the same.
“[Bennett] said just to play with a reckless abandon,” Tobey said. “Just go out there and play free. I tried to do that tonight.”
Did he ever.
It was like Bennett had awakened the Kraken monster. Tobey showed a ferocity on the boards that Virginia fans had not seen in eons.
The New Yorker pulled down a career-high 20 rebounds and scored 15 points in a dominating performance against Louisville’s big men in helping spark Virginia to a surprisingly easy 68-46 win over the Cardinals. Tobey snared more rebounds in this game than he did during the entire month of February (19 boards in seven games), and became the first Cavalier to capture 20 rebounds in a game since Travis Watson did it in 2003.
He was just one of UVa’s five seniors who impacted their final game at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena, helping the Cavaliers post an unbeaten record at home (15-0) for the first time in 34 years and locked up the No. 2 seed in this week’s ACC Tournament. Virginia will face the winner of the Clemson-Georgia Tech game on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Tobey said that he was so jacked up emotionally from the Senior Night festivities, hearing the band and the fans for the last time at JPJ, that he actually air-balled one shot. When he settled down, though, he showed Wahoo fans a rare exhibition of dominating basketball.
Virginia assistant coach Ron Sanchez had kept Tobey updated on the rebound count throughout the game, but when the big center saw 17 rebounds flash on the arena scoreboard, he was determined to make it even more.
“I wanted to get 20 and when I saw them put it up, I really wanted to get 20,” Tobey said. “I’d never had 20 ever in my life. Even the last one, all of my teammates were saying on the foul line, ‘Get it, get it, get it.’ It was a pretty easy one that just fell down, so they all just boxed out and let me get the rebound.”
Not long after that, after he was fouled and sent to the free throw line, fans began to chant, “Tobey, Tobey, Tobey,” a rare tribute by those who inhabit JPJ.
“That was real emotional for me,” Tobey said. “My career here has had a lot of ups and downs, and being able to be there one last time and have the crowd chant my name was something I’ll never forget.”
Certainly he has experienced the frustration, even wrath of Wahoo fans during a roller coaster season. As recently as Virginia’s last loss, at Miami a couple weeks ago, fans expressed dismay over the big man’s inability to finish off baskets from point-blank range and missing some free throws in the games critical closing minutes.
The fact that he now owns the arena record for the most rebounds in a single game could give Tobey the confidence boost headed into postseason play.
That’s something that Bennett, the big man whisperer, is hoping to see down the homestretch.
“Mike has helped us in big games at different times this year, so it’s in there, you can see that,” Bennett said. “That size Mike has and him playing with reckless abandon, that’s what we talked about. Focus on one thing. Don’t worry about fouling, don’t worry about a force. Just have a reckless abandon. He was that tonight. I hope he can bring that…I don’t know if he can get 20 rebounds every game, but he was inspired. I expect to see that kind of life and liveliness from him.”
Tobey said that in the past he would be worried about fouling, because he has gotten into foul trouble with regularity, and that weighed on his mind. He confessed that he has also worried about making a mistake.
Bennett’s advice helped clear the center’s mind about all those issues.
“Talking to coach actually helped free me up inside,” Tobey said. “I just went out there and played basketball. I hope to keep that up going forward.”
It was the first double-double of Tobey’s last season and the fourth time he scored 15 or more points (his season high was 16 against Oakland). For the record, he was 5-for-8 shooting against Louisville and hit 5-of-8 free throws in 25 minutes of playing time (his most since clocking 26 in a loss at Georgia Tech on Jan. 9).
“[Tobey] has it in him and tonight he showed it,” said senior teammate Anthony Gill (15 points). “We’re going to need that going down the stretch. We’re going to need everybody to step up and tonight was a perfect opportunity for him to go ahead and show us what he can do.”
Maybe Bennett out to take Tobey out for lunch again before the ACC Tournament, maybe toss in a couple of steaks and lobster and a little more of that Zen stuff. Phil Jackson would be envious.