UVa might be a team that struggles from the free-throw line but you wouldn't know it in the last minute or so on Monday night, as the No. 17-ranked Cavaliers went 7-of-8 at the charity stripe in the final 1:03 and used a 16-point second half by Joe Harris to beat Maryland 61-53.
The Wahoos (20-5, 11-1 ACC) trailed by one at the half in large part because Harris had only scored three points on four shots. He hit a pair of 3s in the first five minutes of the second half and was a huge part of a swing that gave UVa the momentum, as he finished with a game-high 19 points.
After Harris scored inside to give his team a 37-35 lead with 11:45 left, Malcolm Brogdon had a lay up blocked by Nick Faust. The Terps got out on the break and it looked like Roddy Peters had a lane to the basket on the other end. But as he's wont to do, Justin Anderson timed his steps, tracked Peters down from behind, and swatted the shot only to then save the ball from going out of bounds.
Five seconds later, with UVa now on the break, Harris hit another 3 from the wing and ignited both the Cavaliers and the crowd of 11,568 at John Paul Jones Arena.
"That was significant," head coach Tony Bennett said. "It got Joe a big 3 and that erupted [things].....Justin bailed [us] out with a great block and then to turn it into three points on the other end was significant. Those are those swings plays [and] there were a few of them. That was certainly one of them."
Added Akil Mitchell of Anderson's block and the ensuing 3-pointer from Harris, "I don't know why people lay the ball up. You should know on film that's what he loves to do....From there on out, we locked it down on the defensive end. They gave us a couple of breaks and then we started to kind of pull away."
Mitchell also did a lot of what the Hoos expect him to do: Play great defense and be his team's unsung hero. Tasked with guarding a smaller, 3-point shooting forward in Evan Smotrycz, Mitchell adjusted after Smotrycz scored eight points in the first 6:13. He was held scoreless for the remaining 33:47 of the game.
In addition, Mitchell went 6-of-8 shooting from the field and scored a season-high 13 points while racking up six rebounds, three assists, and a steal in 34 minutes of action with no turnovers.
"He has played well," Bennett said of Mitchell. "I think a number of guys have stepped up but definitely Akil. He is playing on the glass, he is finishing better, and his ability to guard mobile guys is such a strength."
Brogdon added 14 points for the Cavaliers and scored in double-figures for the 12th-straight time in ACC play. In fact, it was the ninth game in a row where he's scored 14 points or more.
In order to win its eighth-straight game (the team's longest conference winning streak since 1982-1983), UVa had to keep a scrappy Maryland team from maintaining momentum after a hot start. Harris' second half ended any hopes the Terps (14-11, 6-6) had of winning their final game in Charlottesville as a member of the ACC.
"That was huge," Harris said of his 3-pointer after Anderson's block. "The crowd was really getting into it at that point. It was just a huge momentum swing for us. It was a big play and that was an unbelievable block."
But just as important was the way Virginia shot free throws down the stretch. After the Terps went on a quick 7-2 run to cut it to 54-50 with 2:11 to play, the Cavaliers got three of four free throws from Harris and then four straight, two each from Brogdon and Anderson, to push the lead to 61-50 with 23.5 seconds to play.
In the end, UVa outscored Maryland 34-22 in the paint and only turned the ball over six times.
Now, after four games in nine days, the team must turn its attention to a game at Clemson on Saturday but only after a few days of rest.
"It was huge," Mitchell says of going 4-0 over the last week or so. "Legs are a little tired now...We've got a couple of days off and we'll refocus and re-energize and be back at it. It'll be a grind-out game. It's a tough environment. It's tough to win there."