It's hard to believe a game that was 45-40 with 14:14 left ended up being an 82-54 blowout win for Virginia but that's what the Cavaliers did to visiting Georgia Tech on Sunday afternoon. Spurred by a 16-1 run midway through the second half after the Jackets had closed the gap, the Wahoos used a 37-to-14 spurt to put the finishing touches on this dominating performance.
With the victory, UVa (19-8, 9-5 ACC) kept pace both in the conference and with an NCAA Tournament resume that needs wins and no mistakes.
Thanks to an 18-point, eight-rebound game from Akil Mitchell and a steady 15 points from Joe Harris, the Wahoos were able to squelch any hiccup opportunities going into Thursday night's matchup with No. 6-ranked Duke.
In all, Virginia put four scorers in double figures and amassed a 25-to-5 advantage over the Jackets in points off turnovers. Having outrebounded (29-26) and outscored Georgia Tech in the paint (46-24), the Cavaliers left little doubt.
After losing in Atlanta on Feb. 3 66-60, UVa got a bounce-back win not just over the visitors from Georgia Tech (14-12, 4-10) but also following a tough loss at Miami on Tuesday night. And it was due in large part to the play Tony Bennett and the Wahoos got from the point guard position.
"The game was just very slow to me," said Jontel Evans, who posted 10 points, eight assists, three rebounds and, most importantly, zero turnovers.
"I was just taking my time and taking what the defense was giving me, whether it was layups at the basket or drives and kicks," he said. "I was able to make those plays."
Bennett agreed, adding, "What sparked us certainly was Jontel Evans' play, his ability to get to the rim and make some plays."
After Robert Carter, Jr. hit a 3-point shot to cut UVa's lead to 45-40 about a six minutes into the second half, Mitchell got two offensive rebounds on the next possession and was fouled, making both free throws. Harris then made a bucket in the paint and Evans followed that with his own layup and then assisted on a Mitchell basket inside on the following possession.
By the time Evans scored again, UVa's lead was 55-41 with 11:19 left. The Cavalier defense didn't allow a field goal between Carter's trey at 14:14 and his next basket, a lay-up with 9:02 left. In the meantime, Taylor Barnette added a pair of 3-point shots and the rout was on.
"I thought we became harder to score against," Bennett explained. "Our position was better, we made them earn, I thought we blocked out.
"I just thought we stepped it up a notch on that end and then our shots started dropping to let us build a little on that lead."
"We owed Georgia Tech one," Evans said. "Obviously they got us back at their place and we lost that tough one to Miami. It was just a mindset of 'We've got to get this win, regardless'."
The win was UVa's 15th-straight victory at home, the longest in school history since a record 34-game streak from 1980 to 1983. The Cavaliers also improved to 34-3 when scoring 70 points or more under Bennett.
Mike Tobey returned to action for the first time since playing nine minutes against the Jackets in the matchup earlier this month. He sat out the previous five games due to mononucleosis. In that streak, the Cavaliers went 3-2. On Sunday, he had seven points and four rebounds in 15 minutes of action.
"He wasn't bashful when he got his hands on the ball," Bennett said with a laugh of Tobey, who was 3-of-7 from the field. "Mike's got a scoring mentality but it was good...I thought those were good minutes for him, good action. There's a pace and a timing when you're in a game that's a little different than practice."
Tobey practiced twice this week, Bennett said, going about a quarter of the session on Friday and then about half the reps yesterday.
"I get a break," Mitchell said with a laugh when asked what Tobey's return meant to him. "I can afford a foul here and there. I don't have to guard a 7-footer every night. He does so much more than that, though. He's getting buckets, he's scoring. When he's locked in, he's doing well on the defensive end as well. He's a huge addition."
Fellow freshman Justin Anderson had a hot first half, scoring nine points and posting two assist and two steals. He finished with 11 points and four assists.
With the payback now served to the Jackets, UVa prepares in earnest for Thursday's showdown against the Blue Devils in what will be a sold-out John Paul Jones Arena. Evans, still in his jersey and waiting to speak with the media before a team autograph session back on the court, said the team had already turned the page.
"We're ready for Duke right now," he added. "This Georgia Tech win is behind us and our focus is now on Duke for Thursday. It's going to be a battle."