For the second time in as many conference games this season, Virginia’s three freshmen found themselves on the court together at the same time in the first half and immediately provided the Cavaliers a spark.
While freshman guard Paul Jesperson and freshman forward Darion Atkins combined to log 18 minutes during Virginia’s 61-58 loss Thursday at Duke, both players – as well as freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon – executed fairly well. Perhaps just as importantly, none of the three freshmen seemed overwhelmed by the atmosphere in a typically crazed Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Coach Tony Bennett continues to rely primarily on a seven-man rotation, but he was not been afraid to insert Jesperson or Atkins at relatively critical moments in Virginia’s first two conference games. The Cavaliers trailed Miami by five during the first half of Virginia’s ACC opener on Jan. 7 when Atkins and Jesperson subbed into the game for the first time. Brogdon also was on the floor during the ensuing five-minute stretch in which Virginia went on a 10-1 run. The Cavaliers won, 52-51.
On Thursday at Duke, Atkins checked in for the first time with just more than 10 minutes remaining in the first half. At that point, Virginia trailed, 12-11. Shortly thereafter, Atkins blocked a shot by Duke forward Ryan Kelly, grabbed the ball and initiated a fast break. Sophomore guard Joe Harris missed a transition layup, but fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott recorded a put-back dunk to push the Cavaliers into the lead.
Harris picked up his second personal foul moments later and subsequently was replaced in the lineup by Jesperson. Duke guard Andre Dawkins made two free throws as a result of Harris’s second foul to put the Blue Devils back in front, 14-13. At that point, Virginia had the following players on the floor: Atkins, Jesperson, Brogdon, Scott and fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski. It was an interesting mix of youth and experience in a hostile environment against the No. 8 team in the nation.
But the freshmen continued to hold their own. Atkins grabbed consecutive offensive rebounds (one off a Zeglinski miss; the other off his own) before scoring a layup.
Then, in perhaps an unappreciated moment at the time, Atkins fouled Duke forward Mason Plumlee hard enough to prevent what would have been a fast-break dunk. Virginia was clinging to a three-point lead at the time, and the crowd was itching for a reason to erupt. It was Atkins’s second foul, and he immediately was subbed out of the game. But Plumlee missed both of his ensuing free throws.
What would have been a sure Duke basket had Atkins not committed the foul (he was no doubt going for a block, but the end result was the same) turned into a situation in which the Blue Devils came away with no points.
Scott scored on a jump shot on Virginia’s next possession. The next time the Cavaliers got the ball, Zeglinski fed a nifty pass to Jesperson, who was cutting to the basket. He dunked the ball to give Virginia a six-point lead, its largest of the night.
It also should be noted that during the six minutes Jesperson played during the first half, he defended Austin Rivers – Duke’s leading scorer and also a freshman guard – and did a fine job. Rivers did not score in the first half while being defended by Jesperson.
“Paul came in and gave us a nice lift, and Malcolm and Darion both,” Bennett said afterward.
Jesperson finished with two points in 10 minutes, while Atkins tallied with two points, four rebounds and a block in eight minutes. And Brogdon, who already has established himself as a dependable member of Virginia’s regular rotation, recorded five points (all in the first half), two rebounds and one turnover in 17 minutes.
Atkins and Jesperson have proved through their play in Virginia’s first two ACC games this season that, if nothing else, the Cavaliers are capable of extending their bench two more players when necessary.