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COLLEGE MEN’S BASKETBALL: In NIT, Anderson is Cavs’ spark
CHARLOTTESVILLE—A few members of the Virginia men’s basketball team were feeling gloomy about the Cavaliers’ relegation to the National Invitation Tournament.
It may have affected their play in Virginia’s 67–56 victory over Norfolk State Tuesday night in the first round of the consolation tournament.
All-Atlantic Coast Conference junior guard Joe Harris attempted just seven shots, converted 2 of 5 free throw attempts and was forced into four turnovers.
Standout junior forward Akil Mitchell committed a career-high five turnovers and bricked six of his first eight foul shots.
“I had a little trouble getting up for this game,” Mitchell said. “The disappointment of not making the [NCAA] tournament was still sitting on my shoulders.”
But the sparse John Paul Jones Arena crowd of 4,790 and the choppy play as a result of 65 fouls did little to deter Virginia freshman guard Justin Anderson.
The Westmoreland County native has been more known for highlight-reel dunks and over-exuberance than poise this season.
However, as the Cavaliers (22–11) labored through a lethargic performance against the Spartans, it was Anderson who rescued them and gave them an opportunity to host St. John’s (17–15) on Sunday or Monday in the NIT’s second round.
“Coming off not getting selected into the tournament, it’s kind of a mental drain on your team and you have to keep everybody encouraged,” Anderson said. I think that’s a part of my role on this team, keeping everybody encouraged, keeping everybody motivated, and having fun out there on the court.“I think that’s what I needed to do [Tuesday night].”
Anderson scored 15 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists. The timeliness of his contributions may have been more key than the statistics.
He scored six straight points during a crucial stretch to help the Cavaliers build a 55–47 lead. And earlier as the Spartans used full-court pressure to cut into their 11-point deficit, Anderson broke through the defense on back-to-back occasions to find Mitchell for open opportunities.
“When they pressed us, Justin broke it, and got us some of those easy baskets because we were laboring a little bit,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Mitchell and Harris were out of sorts as far as the turnovers. We just needed someone to make some plays and get us some easy buckets, and Justin did that.”
Anderson welcomes the chance to be a distributor. When he was a youth, NBA star point guard Steve Nash was one of his favorite players. Anderson wanted to play the position, but his hulking 6-foot-6 frame isn’t ideal for it.
“I’ve always wanted to be a point guard,” Anderson said. “But God didn’t make me like that right now, so you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But that was fun for sure, being able to make great decisions. I just love passing the ball. I like to see my teammates finish good passes, so I took advantage of the opportunity.”
Despite the calmness Anderson displayed in the clutch, his mentor still saw a bit of the playfulness that has drawn Bennett’s ire.
Virginia senior point guard Jontel Evans said Anderson “tends to get silly” and is “kind of everywhere sometimes,” but played perhaps his most mature game of the season against the Spartans.
“Usually he kind of drifts off and gets away from the game, but tonight I saw the focus,” Evans said. “It was one time where he was getting hyped for the crowd, which Coach Bennett didn’t like, so I had to run over and tell him ‘Focus and let’s finish this game. It’s still three minutes left.’ Other than that he was poised and I’m real proud of him.”
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