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STEVE DESHAZO: Cavaliers move forward, but Evans takes a step back

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Absolutely nothing comes easily or without a price for Virginia’s basketball team.

The Cavaliers (7–2) should have spent Wednesday night celebrating their sixth straight victory, a gritty 46–38 decision over visiting Tennessee. Instead,a pall of concern hung over the team after senior point guard Jontel Evans aggravated the right foot injury that caused him to miss five of the season’s first eight games.

There was no official diagnosis, but it didn’t sound good.

“I don’t know what to expect,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said, “but [Evans] was really upset.”

Virginia fans should be concerned, too. Backup point guard Malcolm Brogdon already has been declared out for the season after his left foot didn’t heal as quickly as expected following surgery in March. Evans missed the Cavaliers’ season-opening defeat at George Mason and played just three minutes in a loss to Delaware before sitting out the next three games, leaving freshman Tevin Jones as the No. 1 ball-handler.

Evans was working his way back into shape and made his first start of the season Wednesday night, helping Virginia lead from start to finish. After the Volunteers (6–3) scored the first five points of the second half to cut a 25–16 halftime deficit to four, Evans used his linebacker strength and quickness to break down the Tennessee defense with two driving layups.

That sparked an 11–0 run capped by an inbounds pass from Evans to junior Joe Harris that resulted in an uncontested layup. The two made eye contact, a bond that only two veteran teammates can pull off.

“I thought [Evans] made a couple of nice drives and put pressure on their defense,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “And he was guarding well.”

But with 13 minutes left, Evans pulled himself from the game and limped to the locker room. In the next eight minutes, with Jones running the point, the Cavaliers went 1 for 10 from the field with four turnovers.

“Tevin got a little sped up a couple of times and made a couple of uncharacteristic turnovers,” Bennett said.

Evans returned to the bench with 5:15 remaining but didn’t play again.

“I said [to the team’s trainers], ‘Can I put him in?’” Bennett said, “and they said, ‘No, not now.’”

Still, Evans’ mere presence seemed to inspire and calm his teammates; Harris fed Mitchell for a pick-and-roll layup to restore order.

Jones later redeemed himself by hitting two clutch free throws with 32 seconds left to extend a four-point lead to six. This came after the normally reliable Mitchell and Harris each missed the front end of a 1 and 1.

“We were just hurrying it up a little bit,” Jones said of the drought. “We got a little too quick and hit a wall. I had to tell myself, ‘Do what you normally do.’”

It’s the point guard’s job to make sure a team doesn’t go too quickly—especially an offensively challenged one like Virginia. Evans, the team’s only scholarship senior, embodies Bennett’s defense-first philosophy that values the ball as if it were the new iPhone. He made the all-Atlantic Coast Conference defensive team last season, and he’s one of the few Cavaliers who can create his own shot or break down a defense.

At 6 feet and 180 pounds, Jones is as quick as Evans, but lacks his strength and experience. He’ll have to grow up fast if the Cavaliers hope to contend with an ACC middle class that’s been better than advertised so far.

Their smothering defense will keep the Cavaliers competitive, and Virginia’s patient motion offense doesn’t require one man to handle the ball as often as some teams’ point guards. But if Evans’ MRI isn’t good, Jones’ slender shoulders will carry a heavy load this winter.

“If Jontel is to be out, Tevin’s a great backup,” Harris said. “We’re all intelligent basketball players, and we have a lot of trust in each other. We have a lot of confidence in him.”

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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