Virginia got a lift in the first 4:15 of the second half from junior Joe Harris, held Fairfield to 20.8 percent shooting in the second half, and only allowed one basket over the final 8:44 of the game to beat the Stags 54-45 in the first game of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
UVa (1-1) was led by Harris, who scored a game-high 15 points. He was also credited with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and a single blocked shot in 34 minutes of action.
The Wahoos also had two other players in double figures: junior Akil Mitchell, who scored 12 and had a game-high 8 rebounds in 33 minutes, and freshman Evan Nolte, who had 11 points, 3 steals, and a pair of assists in 28 minutes of action.
Trailing by six with under 10 seconds left in the first half, Mitchell scored with 3.4 left to give UVa a little momentum. But Nolte, on the ensuing inbounds, feigned getting back on D, stepped, turned, and caught the inbounds as if in a lay-up line. He scored just before time expired to cut Fairfield's halftime edge to 30-28.
With that momentum in hand, Harris said he got aggressive to start the second half. His 8 points gave UVa a considerable edge and once the Wahoos wrestled the lead on Harris' bucket with 15:45 left, they never really looked back.
Head coach Tony Bennett said he was pleased with what he saw from his team in the second half after what was a somewhat sloppy first session.
"I think they hit some tough shots but they were getting offensive rebounds, getting in the lane, and certainly when they were left open they were making them," Bennett recalled. "I thought our defense was better in the second half. Those guards are pretty quick and we used our size and tried to take advantage of that. I thought we were a little better on our ball-screen defense."
The cold spell that Fairfield (1-1) experienced to end the second half isn't unusual against a Bennett-coached team. He said he stayed with Harris at point guard and played sophomore Paul Jesperson and freshman Justin Anderson because he liked the matchup those three guards gave his team.
"I think they didn't understand how (Fairfield was) going to run offense, sometimes (with) some false motion," Bennett explained. "They're going to take it until the end of the shot clock, there was partly Princeton stuff. And you can't lapse. Sometimes I thought in the first half our guards would rest for just a second and that's when their guys would make a play. And I told them, 'Stay down in a stance. Make them earn their shots.'
"I thought there was more a sense of, 'Look, we're going to be in front of you. You're going to have to make plays over our length.'"
Harris, who is asked to carry a great deal of the offense with UVa missing its two best point guards, got going in the second half in part because of the mindset he had coming out of halftime.
"I really wanted to be aggressive (tonight)," he explained. "I thought we had made strides from the George Mason game. I think it was helpful for (the young players) particularly to get thrown out into the fire and get some good in-game experience against a quality George Mason team who kind of put it on us.
"I tried to get some shots and be aggressive in the first half but I think I was forcing it a little bit, trying to get to the line a little bit too much and settling. I knew things were a little bit stagnant for us offensively in the first half so I made a point to be more assertive and create for myself and for my teammates."
UVa, which forced Fairfield into 13 turnovers, only committed nine compared to a total of 14 assists. The Cavaliers also outrebounded the Stags 32-30.
The first half wasn't UVa's best ball, as the Wahoos allowed Fairfield to shoot 52.2 percent and get open looks at will. Mitchell said it was a "poor" effort in the first 20 minutes but he was glad to see the team pick up the energy in the second.
"We ran through their action, we knew what to expect from their offensive game," Mitchell added. "I don't think we expected them to shoot as well as they did in the first half. I think we were able to stifle them a little more in the second half...We locked in defensively, brought a little more energy, and the crowd stepped into it a little bit."
Nolte, in what was interestingly his first game in John Paul Jones Arena as either player or spectator, said he wasn't surprised to start the second half but he knew it was going to take a big effort.
"We finished (the first half) well and we wanted to start the second half well," Nolte said, adding that there's a comfort level for himself, Harris, and Anderson to be out there together. "It's good because we can all play multiple positions. I think we're comfortable with a different number of guys on the floor."
On Nolte, Bennett said, "He's versatile. I've said he's a neck-up player. He's smart so he understands the game. And I played him some as a three and some as the four. He can stretch it and he actually has some stuff down low. He knows how to play and I've been pleased with his first two games."