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January 6, 2013

Hoos hang on in win over Heels

With 17:21 left to play in Charlottesville on Sunday night, North Carolina was up 34-26 and had started the second half on a 9-2 run. From that moment on, UVa allowed the Tar Heels to score just 18 more points in a big 61-52 victory in front of a raucous crowd at John Paul Jones Arena.

And the Cavaliers (11-3, 1-0 ACC) did that with a lineup that included one player returning from injury for the first time in four games (Jontel Evans), one battling a badly sprained right ankle (Akil Mitchell), and another dealing with shin splints (Darion Atkins).

Luckily for Tony Bennett and his squad, they had Joe Harris. Clearly the most hungry and dialed-in player on the floor, his 19 points led the Cavaliers in the win over UNC (10-4, 0-1).

"I did not think he was going to be able to play," Bennett said of Mitchell after the win. "He sprained it pretty bad and it was swollen. He said, 'I want to try it.' He warmed up and he went on a lot of adrenaline. I really respect what he did for us."

The injury to Mitchell happened during the first drill of practice on Thursday. Bennett wasn't the only one that didn't think No. 25 would be on the floor.

"I don't know how," said Mitchell, who played 31 minutes and had 7 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. "It's literally a miracle cause Ethan [Saliba, the team's athletic trainer] says I'm a week ahead of schedule. It's a pretty bad high-ankle sprain.

"I couldn't tell you how in the world I'm able to walk on it," Mitchell added.

Of course, the junior and North Carolina native wasn't the only Cavalier gutting it out. Another was Atkins. He played 16 minutes posted 2 points, 3 boards, and 2 blocks, the second of which may have ignited the Cavaliers.

With 15:40 left, Carolina was up 36-31 and James Michael McAdoo, who was held to just 10 points, looked to be cruising for an easy bucket. The Cavaliers hedged on the screen high and Paige found McAdoo alone near the lane as the UNC motion had taken away any other UVa defenders down low. But Atkins, coming back from the screen high was tracking his man, found McAdoo in his sights, took two steps, timed his jump, and rejected the dunk attempt. McAdoo went to the floor with a look of confusion on what had happened. The 12,117 inside JPJA erupted for the Harris 3 the play before the block and the Mitchell putback after it.

"I just had to hustle and get back down the court, I knew he was going to go up and try to dunk it, and I just had to go up strong with him," Atkins recalled. "I feel like it boosted our energy and our morale and it kept us going throughout the game."

That Atkins, as well as Evans and Mitchell, contributed in the ways they did was impressive to Harris but something he expected on some level.

"We have all of the confidence in the world in our teammates," explained Harris, who scored in double figures for the 12th time this season. "Obviously, it kind of sucked just because of circumstances. Akil's hurt, he played a great game battling through a really bad ankle injury. And so did D-A [Atkins] battling through. Those guys were playing through pain, Jontel's playing through pain.

"These guys are able to step up and play big in big time games and they're able to come through."

Evans played 21 minutes, scored 8 points and dished out 6 assists. He was the difference in the second half.

"He's not where he needs to be defensively," Bennett said of his lone senior scholarship player. "But he can still come up with some plays and he could body, as an older guy, body [Marcus] Paige a couple of times. His ability to put pressure on the paint and get in there, that stood out.

"He got us some great looks and that makes all the difference in the world," Bennett added.

"It's great," Harris said of having Evans back in the lineup. "Whenever Jontel can come back and play, he's the leader of our team, our point guard. He's the spirit of our defense. Whenever you have him out there, he makes good things happen."

UVa had to deal with a hot-shooting Reggie Bullock, he himself coming back to action following a missed game due to a concussion. He had a game-high 22 points on 7 of 9 shooting. But the Cavaliers limited him to just two points in the game's final 3:08.

In terms of putting points on the board, it was timely scoring by Paul Jesperson and then Evan Nolte that gave the Cavaliers the offensive boost they needed to hold off the fast-paced Heels.

Jesperson hit a 3, drove down the lane in the second half and switched hands in air before laying it in, and drew a nice foul in the post with a no-look pass. Nolte, meanwhile, continued with his knack of coming up big in big games. He scored 9 points, all on 3-pointers (a career high).

"I really didn't know where I was on the court at first," he said of a deep 3 he hit with less than 10 minutes left to play. "And then I shot it and I could tell it was far away because right after it, the crowd, everyone was like, 'Ohhh.' I just tried to shoot it with confidence and it happened to go in."

Shooting with confidence, he reiterated, is the most important part.

"First time playing against Carolina, first ACC game," he said. "I just tried to go in there with confidence and just do the things we do the best."

In snapping a three-game losing streak to the Heels and handing them their first loss at JPJA, UVa held UNC to a season-low 52 points and improved to 9-1 when scoring 60 this season.

Now the Wahoos, after winning their ACC opener for the fourth time in a row under Bennett, hit the road bound for Wake Forest on Wednesday and Clemson this weekend. As the conference schedule takes hold, Bennett said he knows his team will need to keep responding but there was a moment-albeit brief-for appreciating the win.

"I told our guys, 'I'm going to give you 15 seconds to celebrate,'" Bennett recalled of the scene in the locker room. "We put the music on and said let's dance for 15 seconds. And then we shut it off. Said, 'Alright we're done.' I said, 'Now, we're going to get ready to have a good practice on Monday and prepare for a much-improved Wake Forest team.' That's the mindset you have to have.

"It can't linger too long and with a young team, I think you've got to know when you've got to get back to business," he added.


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