To call this NIT opening round game between Norfolk State and UVa on Tuesday night chippy would simply not suffice. In a matchup that quickly went from contentious to downright ugly, the Cavaliers somehow managed to make enough free throws down the stretch and got great minutes from Justin Anderson to hold on for a 67-56 win.
Virginia (22-11) didn't make it easy on itself or the 4,790 fans in attendance, turning the ball over 17 times and only scoring 15 points all night off of NSU's 18 turnovers. The Cavaliers also struggled mightily against the Norfolk State's 3-2 zone and also from the charity stripe, where UVa was 22 of 37 (59.5 percent).
Despite a 12-point night from junior All ACC performer Joe Harris, who was 2 of 5 at the free-throw line, the Cavaliers managed to survive. A lot of that had to do with the play of Anderson, who posted eight points over the game's final 3:38. The freshman finished with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, one block, and one steal in 30 minutes of action.
"We had trouble handling the ball, making free throws, keeping them off the glass," UVa's Tony Bennett said. "Those things kind of cost us. But enough plays were made on the defensive end and a few buckets here and there just to keep Norfolk State at bay."
The zone caused Virginia's offense to go "stagnant," Bennett explained. "Guys looked uncomfortable. We haven't had a team play us like that most of the year," he added.
The Spartans (21-12) employ a number of zone looks and on film, Harris said the Cavaliers had not seen that specific 3-2 look. NSU's wrinkle, having the three players at the top play a standard zone while the two players down low matched up more like a man-to-man defense, gave Virginia fits.
"In the second half, I thought we moved a little better," Bennett said. "It helped us but it was not a pretty game at all. At this point to come away with one [while] not playing well, it was important."
Akil Mitchell had issues from the field and at the line, going 5 of 11 in both areas. Though he finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, he committed a team-high five turnovers.
When Norfolk State began to press, something Mitchell called UVa's "achilles heel" this season, it again put pressure on the Cavaliers to take care of the ball. Though it at times led to some easy baskets, it also cost Virginia too often.
"We were just happy we got a chance to figure it out before it was too late," Mitchell said.
At the start, NSU went up quickly thanks to an 8-2 run before the first media timeout but UVa responded, scoring nine-straight points. Though they never trailed again after taking a 12-11 lead with 9:55 left in the first half, the Wahoos didn't make life easy.
A 24-16 halftime lead was cut quickly when Norfolk State's Penny Williams (16 points) sank a pair of 3-pointers to start the second half. Harris and Evan Nolte followed suit and that's about the time when the free-throw competition began. Over the next six minutes, Virginia attempted 11 free throws, making six. NSU took eight and made all but two.
A quick 6-0 spurt midway through the half cut UVa's lead to 38-35 with 10:07 left to play. From there, senior Jontel Evans made a tough basket in the lane, was fouled, and took a shot to the back of the head when he hit the floor. Mitchell came in to take the free throw and sank it.
"I just wanted to hit a free throw," Mitchell said simply. "I just don't even, my goodness, I've never had such an off night. I don't know what it was. Nothing seemed to be going in."
Evans said after the game that he was "a little dizzy" after hitting the floor but he played shortly thereafter and would be fine.
The turning point for Virginia in beating NSU, which went 16-0 in the MEAC regular season, was the play of Anderson. He was one of the few guys to do well as the fouls mounted (UVa was whistled for 15 in the second half, NSU for another 16).
"Just step to the free-throw line and shoot them with confidence," said Anderson, who went 7 of 9 from the stripe. "Nothing different. Just step to the line. Refocus. And knock them down."
He also said he thought the game would be a hard-fought contest, perhaps even being as on edge as it seemed at times.
"That's a hungry team," he explained. "Just watching them last year, being a Virginia native I took it personal that we were going against another Virginia team. And they were going to come in and try to beat the state school just as ODU did.
"That bad taste I got from ODU came back into my memory and I knew they were going to come in hungry and fight. A lot of people look at our school and think we're a bunch of soft guys and all that but we're a tough team. I loved how we battled back and we played through all of the jawing that they did and we stuck to our system and I think that's why we were successful."
UVa's second-round game against St. John's, which beat St. Joseph's 63-61 on Tuesday, has a date and time that are still to be determined. The Cavaliers, as the No. 1 seed in their region, will play at home once again.