Maybe it was because he was new and somewhat unknown to the Virginia fan base. Maybe it was because of the circumstances that necessitated he even be on the court Tuesday night.
Whatever it was, the Cavaliers fans in attendance Tuesday night for Virginia’s 69-42 win over Maryland-Eastern Shore sure seemed to love freshman guard Paul Jesperson. He checked into the game for the first time, and the crowd cheered. He made his first shot – a three-pointer from the corner midway through the second half – and the crowd cheered. He missed several shots thereafter, and an audible sigh emanated from the audience.
“I got a pretty good vibe, I thought, from them when I checked in for that first time,” Jesperson said. “I heard some cheering for me, so that was exciting.”
This was not a game in which meaningful, overall evaluations of Virginia’s progress could be marked. UMES hung around – relatively speaking – for the first half, and then quickly faded in the second. Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott scored 17 points in 15 minutes. The Cavaliers tallied 5.5 times as many assists as did UMES (four).
Indeed, Tuesday night was more about evaluating the growth of players like Darion Atkins and the potential of players like Jesperson. What exactly can they give Virginia once conference play begins a week from Saturday? That remains somewhat uncertain, but at least we came a little closer to finding out.
The Cavaliers, by the way, are 11-1 and off to their best start since 2000-01.
1) Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins. Those two forward spent a lot of time on the court together Tuesday, and they seemed to compliment each other quite well. Both were active on the boards – Mitchell recorded nine rebounds; Atkins had seven – and both demonstrated some scoring punch – Mitchell tallied nine points; Atkins had 13 – as well.
Specifically for Atkins, who prior to Tuesday mostly had received playing time in chunks, this game was important for him to be able to get into a rhythm on the floor. He played a career-high 20 minutes.
“I felt more comfortable, obviously,” Atkins said. “Everyone saw that. I just felt like I’m building chemistry with the guys on the court, and I’m just getting a little bit more comfortable with my game. It was a lot of fun.”
2) Sammy Zeglinski and Jontel Evans. Someone had to lead the young pups on the floor, and most often Tuesday it was either Zeglinski or Evans. For decent stretches, especially as the game progressed, Zeglinski (a fifth-year senior) or Evans (junior) would find themselves on the floor with a cast that included Mitchell (sophomore), Atkins (freshman), Jesperson (freshman) and guard Malcolm Brogdon (freshman). Zeglinski and Evans combined to tally 10 assists, one turnover and five steals.
3) Paul Jesperson. As collegiate debuts go, the Merrill, Wisc. native’s wasn’t bad. He recorded five points in 15 minutes. He made the first shot he took. He didn’t look lost on defense. And he didn’t make any silly mistakes. Jesperson ended up making just 2 of 6 shots (1 for 4 from three-point range), but all in all, Bennett seemed pleased.
“I heard the crowd a couple times … For some reason, they wanted him to shoot,” Bennett said. “But he passed ’em up. He didn’t need to shoot ’em. He’s very comfortable moving the ball. He has great vision.”
Jesperson, mind you, was not supposed to be playing Tuesday night. He wasn’t supposed to play this season at all. The original plan was for Jesperson to redshirt this season, but that all changed in recent days when sophomore guard KT Harrell and redshirt freshman forward James Johnson decided to transfer out of the program, leaving the Cavaliers with just nine scholarship players.
1) Sluggish start. Yeah, yeah, we know Virginia jumped out to an 11-2 lead. We know the Cavaliers led by 10 at the break. But UMES just isn’t a very good team, and it seemed as though Virginia’s full focus might not have been present the entire night. This happens from time to time in non-conference play. At least the Cavaliers were able to work themselves out of it.
2) Passing the ball to a teammate with only one shoe on. With just more than six minutes remaining in the game, Brogdon passed the ball to Atkins and then went to retrieve a shoe that had come off. Atkins waited a few moments, then bounced the ball right back to Brodgon, who still hadn’t quite finagled his shoe back on. Brodgon caught the ball, Virginia called a timeout and a potentially embarrassing moment was averted. But that didn’t prevent Bennett or Atkins’s teammates from giving him some good-natured ribbing afterward.
“My one criticism of him is don’t throw the ball to a guy who has his shoe off,” Bennett said. “I said, ‘Darion, when a guy gives you the ball because his shoe fell off, you probably don’t want to throw it back to him.’ ”