CHARLOTTESVILLE – Whether it was Virginia’s defense at its suffocating best or a discombobulated Clemson offense that threatened to finish with more turnovers than points mattered little to Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett.
On the heels of an upset that hurt his team’s NCAA tournament profile and an unfortunate diagnosis that left Virginia with a depleted front court for the foreseeable future, the Cavaliers needed a laugher. On Thursday night, Clemson obliged.
Virginia did not trail against the Tigers, cruising to a 78-41 win, the widest margin of victory in an ACC game in more than four years. It also was the most lopsided win the Cavaliers have enjoyed against a conference opponent since the 1983 ACC tournament.
Junior Joe Harris once again paced Virginia. He finished with a game-high 21 points and outscored Clemson’s entire roster until 12 minutes 7 seconds remained in the second half.
Forward Akil Mitchell added 16 points and six rebounds and freshman Justin Anderson (Montrose Christian) chipped in 14 points.
The Cavaliers (16-6, 6-3 ACC) jumped to an 18-4 lead and shot 55.6 percent from the floor after hitting just one of their final 14 shots in a loss at Georgia Tech on Sunday.
“To come out and play that kind of ball on both ends of the floor certainly was good, and to get off to that kind of start, it really helped,” Bennett said. “It was really fun to watch.”
It also provided some assurances since Virginia announced before the game that freshman center Mike Tobey will be out indefinitely after receiving a diagnosis of mononucleosis earlier this week. Bennett noted that Tobey’s face had been swollen of late, and he “looked like someone . . . shot him in the rear end with a tranquilizer dart,” against the Yellow Jackets.
But without Tobey and forward Darion Atkins (shin) in the lineup, Virginia still limited Clemson forwards Milton Jennings and Devin Booker to nine total points. That duo combined for 36 points and 20 rebounds when the Tigers beat the Cavaliers, 59-44, last month.
But it was clear from the opening tip that Clemson bore little resemblance to the team that shot close to 77 percent in the second half in their first meeting against Virginia. Clemson (12-10, 4-6) struggled even to complete a pass early on, and the Cavaliers scored 23 points off the Tigers’ 19 turnovers.
It wasn’t long before Virginia put the game away with a 20-2 surge heading into halftime. After beginning the contest by missing its first nine three-pointers, Virginia got three in a row from Harris, guard Paul Jesperson and freshman Evan Nolte and took a 38-10 lead into the break. It was the fewest points Virginia has allowed in a half since a victory over Maryland on Jan. 14, 1981.
The score only became more one-sided after halftime. Anderson, who made his first start in ACC play, punctuated the blowout with an over-the-shoulder pass to set up Mitchell for a dunk and a reverse alley-oop slam courtesy of point guard Jontel Evans (eight assists, no turnovers), highlight-reel plays that brought the crowd to its feet.
“You didn’t even realize it, but you look up at the scoreboard and we’re up by 20 and then we’re up by 30,” Harris said. “It was just a testament to the way we were playing and we didn’t let up at all.”