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STEVE DESHAZO: Evans does little things that help Cavaliers come up big
CHARLOTTESVILLE—As he stepped to the foul line with 26.1 seconds to play Tuesday night against N.C. State, Jontel Evans tried to eliminate all distractions.
“All I thought about were the two free throws in front of me,” Virginia’s senior point guard said. “I tuned out the crowd, the score—everything.”
That included his dubious hat trick at the end of the first half, when Evans missed three straight free throws after being fouled on a desperation halfcourt heave. At that point, Evans’ season free throw average was a meager 25 percent (3 for 12).
But Evans defied the odds, making both ends of a one-and-one situation to give the Cavaliers a desperately needed 58–55 victory over the 19th-ranked Wolfpack. And he underscored the fact that even in a game filled with athletic big men, the smallest men on the floor can have the greatest impact.
In an injury-plagued senior season, Evans’ return to health has coincided with the Cavaliers’ recent surge of five straight wins. And he made two of the biggest shots in a game that saw N.C. State lose Atlantic Coast Conference assists leader Lorenzo Brown to a sprained left ankle.
Brown went down 10 minutes into the contest, with the Wolfpack holding a 12–7 lead. They stretched the advantage to 29–18 without him, but they clearly looked out of sync in the second half without their all-ACC-caliber junior point guard. Nine of their 14 turnovers came int he final 20 minutes.
“If you take [Baltimore Ravens quarterback] Joe Flacco out of the [Super Bowl] Sunday, it’s going to be a different game,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “[Brown’s absence] affects everything: our defensive matchups, how we run our offense, where the ball is going. Lorenzo also gives us scoring from that position that now you’re without.”
Echoed Evans: “They struggled offensively, finding shots. He’s the guy who gets their guys easy shots. They were not the same without him.”
Brown averages 13.2 points and 7.2 assists per game, so his tangible effect on the Wolfpack’s fortunes is greater than Evans’ is on the Cavaliers’. But Evans, who entered the game with modest numbers (3.1 points, 4.2 assists), impacts the Cavaliers in ways that numbers alone don’t measure.
He’s the only senior on a team whose best days appear to lie ahead. He’s a terrific, strong on-the-ball defender who orchestrates Virginia’s stingy pack-line defense as well as its patient offense. And he has become a big brother to talented freshmen like Westmoreland County native Justin Anderson.
And it’s important to remember that Evans played a combined three minutes in Virginia’s three crippling non-conference losses (to George Mason, Delaware and 2–17 Old Dominion). A recurring foot injury kept him on the bench for 10 of the season’s first 14 games.
Now that he’s back and healthy, Virginia has won four straight games and climbed into the conversation for an NCAA tournament at-large bid. Thursday night’s victory should improve their Ratings Percentage Index that was No. 109 before the game.
The Cavaliers couldn’t have done it without matching the Wolfpack’s formidable front line of Richard Howell and a flu-ridden C.J. Leslie, who combined for 32 points and 25 rebounds. Virginia junior Akil Mitchell (14 points, 12 rebounds) and freshman Mike Tobey (13 and seven) made it competitive inside for a change.
Still, Virginia was fortunate that Brown wasn’t able to go—and that Evans was (and had a short memory). His coach was certainly confident.
“Jontel is an emotional player,” Tony Bennett said. “I think [the earlier misses] bothered him. But he’s been through too many things, and he means too much to us. [On the final shots] We said, ‘Alright, here we go.’ As a senior, this is the spot you want to be in. And here he is.”
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443