GREENSBORO, N.C. — When Jontel Evans saw the photo, he wondered if Tony Bennett would hang it up in his office. Virginia’s coach has several photos of memorable events, and Evans hoped the moments after the Cavaliers beat Maryland on senior night would rank among them.
After Virginia stormed back from a 17-point deficit Sunday, scoring a 61-58 overtime victory over the Terrapins that kept the Cavaliers in contention for an NCAA tournament berth, Evans ran into Bennett on the court. The emotions came pouring out quickly, with Virginia’s senior captain in tears as Bennett cradled Evans’s head in his arms.
The Cavaliers had ended a two-game losing streak, but more importantly, their point guard finally got some relief from the growing fan angst about his uneven play.
“He sees the love and the hate relationship from the fans,” said freshman Teven Jones, Evans’s backup. “There are a lot of fans that come at his neck sometimes. I don’t know how he takes it.”
Though Evans is averaging just 4.4 points and 4.9 assists per game this season, he has drawn the spotlight with Virginia seeking back-to-back NCAA tournament bids for the first time since 1994-95. On Friday, the Cavaliers face fifth-seeded North Carolina State in an ACC tournament quarterfinal that could decide their fate on Selection Sunday.
Evans’s absence from the lineup during nonconference play helped cause the Cavaliers’ baffling NCAA tournament resume. With him out or limited while recovering from October foot surgery, Virginia went 0-3 against Colonial Athletic Association competition.
Since his return, Evans’s play has become a barometer for how the Cavaliers will perform. The Cavaliers are 10-2 when he finishes with at least four assists and commits three turnovers or less. When Evans commits four or more turnovers, though, Virginia is just 3-4.
But it’s his deft touch in the locker room that has proven beneficial for the Cavaliers’ plethora of inexperienced players. It’s why the ball usually winds up in Evans’s hands when the shot clock is running down, often to the chagrin of the Virginia faithful. “He just has this aura about him where guys just look to him,” junior Akil Mitchell said.
“The dude is just a flat-out leader. He knows how to talk to people. He knows when to talk to people. He knows how to get you serious,” freshman Justin Anderson added. “The best thing about him is he’s willing to accept that pressure, because that’s a lot of pressure on someone.”
Bennett decided to address Evans’s polarizing play during a film session last week after Virginia lost at Florida State, its second straight last-second defeat after upsetting No. 3 Duke on Feb. 28. Evans had committed a costly turnover on the final possession of the Cavaliers’ loss at Boston College on March 3 and then stalled the offense against Florida State.
Evans felt the wrath of unhappy Virginia fans as he became a favorite target on message boards, even though he was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team for a second straight season earlier this week. So Bennett reminded the entire team: “If you’re gonna put your worth or your identity in what others are saying, it’s gonna be tough.”
“It meant a lot for Coach to have my back. It was hard for me to not check my Twitter. People are [mentioning] me, saying disrespectful things,” Evans said. “I’ve been taking the blame for when we lose because it starts with me at both ends of the floor. If I’m not right, other guys are not gonna be right.”
Though he originally committed to play for Dave Leitao, Virginia’s former coach, Evans will become the first player Bennett has ever coached for an entire four-year career (he only spent three seasons as a head coach at Washington State before arriving in Charlottesville in 2009).
The duo has evolved together, starting with the trying times during Bennett’s first two years on the job. Evans has admitted he contemplated transferring, but his commitment culminated in a photo he now hopes will be framed.
So when Evans approached Bennett about adding another picture to the office collection this week, he got a definitive answer.
“We’ve suffered a lot together and it was kind of fun to rejoice together,” Bennett said Wednesday. “When you go through the hard stuff and taste success . . . it makes it sweeter when you’re part of things starting to turn. And he’s a foundation. No question about it.
“That [picture] will be somewhere, whether it’s in my house or my office. That’s for sure.”