CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia Tech point guard Erick Green has been the subject of considerable debate throughout ACC country in recent weeks. Many have wondered if he merits recognition as conference player of the year should he continue to lead the country in scoring while playing for one of the league’s worst teams.
On Tuesday night, though, Virginia’s Joe Harris reminded everyone there’s another dynamic scorer in the state playing the best basketball of his career. The junior scored early and often, setting a new career high as the Cavaliers throttled the Hokies, 73-55, at John Paul Jones Arena.
The victory was Virginia’s seventh in eight games, and the most lopsided contest this rivalry has seen since Jan. 23, 1991. But it also served as another showcase for the player fans have affectionately dubbed “Joey Buckets.” Harris led the Cavaliers in scoring for the 16th time this season, finishing with 26 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
He also got Virginia off to a blistering start, hitting three straight three-pointers to begin the game with Virginia Tech power forward C.J. Barksdale guarding him. Harris entered halftime a perfect 5 for 5 from three-point-range, and by the time he cooled off in the second half, the Cavaliers’ lead had ballooned to 22.
“Having Barksdale on me, I felt like I could move him and lose him,” Harris said. “I was just seeing a big basket in the first half.”
Once again, though, it wasn’t just Harris lighting up the scoreboard. After watching freshmen emerge in recent weeks, Virginia’s veterans did the heavy lifting Tuesday. Junior Akil Mitchell tallied 17 points and eight rebounds, and senior point guard Jontel Evans finished with eight points, seven rebounds, six assists and one turnover.
But Evans’s biggest contributions came on the defensive end, where he made Green’s night miserable. Green started the contest 0 for 9 from the field, scored just one point in the first half and didn’t get his first field goal until 16 minutes 26 seconds remained.
The former All-Met from Winchester finished with 22 points, but almost all of the damage came with the game well out of reach.
“I can’t have a half like that for our team to be in games like this,” said Green, who connected on just 4 of 17 shots after scoring a career-high 35 points against Virginia three weeks ago.
Early on, though, Virginia Tech managed to keep pace with the Cavaliers despite Green’s struggles. Both teams shot better than 50 percent from the field in the game’s opening 10 minutes and, for a change, the Hokies received contributions from role players like freshman Marshall Wood (eight points).
But they could only hang around so long, especially since forward Jarell Eddie — who came off the bench for the first time this season — and guard Robert Brown were a combined 2 for 12 from the field. Virginia ramped up the defensive intensity as the first half wore on, and broke open a close game with a 12-0 run just before halftime.
From that point on, the notion that these two programs are headed in opposite directions was cemented.
The Hokies (11-13, 2-9) have lost seven games in a row for the first time since 2002, and occupy last place in the ACC standings. Virginia (18-6, 8-3), meanwhile, enters the defining stretch of its regular season schedule with a star player in a groove that could carry the Cavaliers deep into March.
“It makes me look like a good coach when he comes out and plays like that,” Coach Tony Bennett said of Harris.