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Freshmen give Virginia basketball a big lift in win over Virginia Tech

By Mark Giannotto,

There were plenty of factors Thursday night that allowed Virginia to withstand Virginia Tech guard Erick Green’s 35-point onslaught. But perhaps the most encouraging sign for Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett was how undaunted his freshmen seemed to be by the entire display.

Virginia emerged with a crucial 74-58 road victory over the Hokies largely because a trio of first-year players – forwards Evan Nolte, Justin Anderson and Mike Tobey – combined to score 39 points, the latest proof that the best barometer for the Cavaliers’ success is how their freshmen play. As Anderson noted, Green’s explosion “really didn’t shock us at all.”

“They were composed. They looked comfortable out there. I liked what I saw from all of them,” Bennett said.

Nolte led the charge with a career-high 18 points, connecting on five three-pointers on a night when Virginia hit a season-high 11 shots from beyond the arc. Virginia Tech’s defense too often forgot its scouting report on Nolte, Coach James Johnson conceded, but Nolte once again showed why Bennett continually refers to him as a “heady” player.

Inserted into the starting lineup with forward Darion Atkins out because of a stress reaction in his right shin the past two games, Nolte has added a new dimension to Virginia’s offense. His ability to hit outside shots has spread out defenses, and Bennett has tweaked his offensive sets to compensate in recent weeks.

The Cavaliers have had their two best shooting performances of 2013 with Nolte in the starting lineup. He’s now averaging more than seven points per game and shooting better than 44 percent from three-point range.

“With the way he’s shot it, that’s changed a couple things,” Bennett said. “He’s a smart player and he showed it. He was in rhythm and his shot was dialed in.

Along with Nolte’s emergence, Anderson has also been a valuable weapon for Virginia the past week. He had his second straight impressive performance Thursday, scoring 11 points and dishing out a career-high six assists against the Hokies.

“It wasn’t really about who was scoring the ball. It was about getting open looks and moving the defense and making the defense work,” said Anderson, a former All-Met from Montrose Christian.

Anderson talked after Virginia’s win over Florida State last weekend about the extra hours he has put in working on his inconsistent jump shot, conceding that even playing for one of the nation’s premier high school basketball programs didn’t prepare him for the sustained effort he must channel every game.

“I would definitely say a huge learning curve,” Anderson noted Saturday. “Coming in from a big high school, it still didn’t do me as much justice as I wanted it to, or I thought it would. It’s a whole different level, a whole new style of play and it’s all about learning every single day. Sometimes I get frustrated and get down and have, I guess, my freshman wall they call it, but it’s all about perseverance, fighting through adversity and coaches have helped me out through that and the team has helped me through that.”

Tobey has also gotten past some initial struggles. Though he remains a work in progress on the defensive side of the ball because of a lack of strength, the 6-foot-11 forward has been able to show off a wide array of moves around the basket in recent weeks. His offense has been a boost with Atkins sidelined.

Tobey was a perfect 5 for 5 from the field and scored 10 points, the fourth time this season he has finished in double figures.

“I’m sure he’s gonna say, ‘Coach, why aren’t I playing more if I’m 5 for 5?’ But he gave us a nice lift,” Bennett said of Tobey. “I thought all the freshmen looked fairly composed out there. They’ll be in a lot of tough environments and they’re gonna have to keep doing this because of our numbers.”

The Cavaliers have a quick turnaround with Boston College coming to John Paul Jones Arena for a 1 p.m. tipoff Saturday.

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