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STEVE DESHAZO: Anderson puts buzz back into his game

CHARLOTTESVILLE—A new close-cropped hair-style wasn’t the only difference in Justin Anderson’s appearance Saturday. For a day, at least, the Westmoreland County native looked like a confident, effective player in Virginia’s much-needed 56–36 romp over Florida State.

Through 16 games, Cavalier fans had seen mere flashes of the athleticism that made Anderson a local legend while playing for Courtland’s junior varsity team as an eighth-grader and a sought-after recruit at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md. For every highlight-reel dunk, there was a missed defensive assignment, or a 3-point shot that clanked off the rim. Like most freshmen, Anderson was making the difficult adjustment from high school star to college contributor.

Before Saturday, Anderson wore his hair long and was averaging a modest 5.1 points and 3.3 rebounds and shooting an anemic 4 for 24 from long range.

But he visited the barber last week, and if Saturday’s performance (eight points, three rebounds and a career-best three blocked shots in 21 minutes) is any indication, though, he’s catching on at exactly the right time for Virginia.

“I feel like he’s starting to get it,” senior guard Jontel Evans said. “There were a couple of passes he forced, but he played very well. He was staying defensive line in his stance the whole time. That’s a big plus for us. He comes into the game with a lot of energy on both ends of the floor, and he’s a freak of nature.”

The absence of starting forward Darion Atkins—who is nursing a stress fracture in his foot and didn’t play—opened up an opportunity for Anderson, and he didn’t disappoint. Barely a minute after entering the game, he confidently drained a 3-pointer from the right wing.

Later in the half, the 6-foot-6 Anderson swatted away a layup attempt by FSU’s 7–1 center, Michael Ojo, then filled the lane on a fast break and sank another 3 from the left corner, breaking into a huge grin on the way back downcourt.

“Justin made some big plays down the stretch with some blocks and he did some other good things,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.

Anyone who expected that kind of contribution from Anderson in November was disappointed—but not more so than Anderson himself. The highest-ranked member of Virginia’s recruiting class, he had three double-figures scoring games in nonconference play—but also failed to score three times, including in his previous a recent game at Clemson.

And Bennett’s demanding defense and patient offensive style also required some major modifications for someone who’d relied heavily on his physical gifts. Anderson said he was used to resting occasionally on the court in high school, a luxury he no longer has.

“It’s definitely been a huge learning curve,” he said. “Even coming from a big-time high school, it didn’t prepare me as much as I thought it would, or hoped it would.

“It’s a whole new level. Sometimes it’s been frustrating, and I’ve gotten down. They talk about the freshman wall, and maybe I’ve hit it. But I’ve fought through it.”

The Seminoles won’t argue. The defending Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champions had beaten Virginia in each of the their previous seven meetings, largely because of a decided advantage in athleticism. Anderson has helped Virginia close that gap, and the Cavaliers were clearly the tougher team (physically and mentally) on a day when FSU backup forward Terranca Anderson was hospitalized after suffering a serious neck injury.

Despite Saturday’s success, don’t expect Anderson to become a 3-point sniper Said Bennett: “Just because he hit two doesn’t mean he has the green light.”

Still, Anderson has been working on his jumper, hoisting dozens of shots after practice to try to bring his skill level up to his athletic one. He certainly made a believer out of veteran Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton.

“I told our players I said,’This kid is a very good player,’” Hamilton said. “Like most freshmen, sometimes it’s a little bit of a challenge trying to get it together. But I knew he was very capable of doing exactly what he did.

“That’s the adjustment a lot of freshmen have to make going from high school to college. But I’m sure he’ll be a lot more confident now that he’s made a couple of shots in a game they felt like they had to have,” Hamilton said.

The Cavaliers are counting on it.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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