To the dismay of his teammates, Virginia point guard Jontel Evans was nearly inconsolable in the locker room of John Paul Jones Arena on Dec. 5. The Hampton native feared the worst, having hobbled off the court in the middle of the Cavaliers’ win over Tennessee that night.
He had tweaked the foot injury that required surgery in October for a second time, and this latest disappointment came just moments after Evans drove through the lane for two straight athletic finger rolls.
“I was mad. I didn’t know why because I felt like it was good and then I had that setback,” he said Sunday night, moments after returning to the court for the first time in more than a month.
“It was very frustrating, but I give all the props to my teammates and my family and my coaches. They just told me to keep my head up and stay positive and when I got my chance again, just take advantage of it.”
Evans hopes he’s back for good now after missing nine of Virginia’s first 13 games. He broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot during preseason workouts and originally aimed to return in time for the Cavaliers’ home opener in November. He ended up making his season debut in Virginia’s third game of the year — a loss to Delaware – playing just three minutes and convincing Coach Tony Bennett and team trainers that his foot needed more time to heal.
After missing three more games, he then came off the bench and looked rusty (0 points, 0 assists, one turnover) in the Cavaliers’ win over Wisconsin as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Following an encouraging seven-assist showing against Green Bay, Evans then aggravated the injury again facing the Volunteers.
This time, Bennett and Virginia’s doctors adopted a more conservative recovery plan. Evans stayed off his feet, wore a walking boot and avoided any taxing activities in the midst of countless hours spent icing, using a bone stimulator and taking Vitamin D pills.
Though taking a redshirt season entered his thought process, Evans wanted to salvage his final year in Charlottesville, which continues Wednesday night with a road game at Wake Forest. Doctors originally targeted Virginia’s win over Wofford last month as a possible return date, but subsequent X-rays weren’t to their liking. In the meantime, Evans found it hard to watch as Virginia “got our butts handed to us” in a surprising upset loss to Old Dominion in Richmond.
But after re-joining practice and a rigorous pregame workout Sunday that eliminated any remaining doubts, Evans entered the resounding win over North Carolina two minutes into the first half. He had three turnovers early on, but quickly found his bearings to finish with eight points and six assists.
“The Wisconsin game, I was thinking about the wrong things. I was very selfish,” Evans said. “This time around, I just wanted to be a team player, do the things I could do and get my guys open shots. If there’s an opportunity to score, it’ll be there and accept the minutes that Coach Bennett was gonna give me.
“It was just me taking my time out there, going at my own pace,” he added. “I felt like those other times I returned I was rushing my shot. I was eager to score a basket because I hadn’t scored one all year.”
Though Virginia has gone 8-1 with redshirt freshman Teven Jones starting at point guard, Evans’s presence in the lineup paid immediate dividends against the Tar Heels. His ability to penetrate into the lane “makes all the difference” for the Cavaliers’ offense, Bennett said after the game.
A member of the ACC’s all-defensive team last year, Evans should only strengthen Virginia’s prowess on that end of the floor. Bennett said Evans still has some work to do to return to form guarding opposing point guards, although the Cavaliers already rank second in the country in scoring defense and lead the ACC in blocked shots
But considering his mental state a month ago, Virginia’s senior captain is just happy to be making a difference again.
“I feel like I came into my own. I’m back to my old ways a little bit,” he said Sunday. “As the season progresses, I feel like my performance can just get better.”