NCAA tournament: Virginia basketball soars into round of 16 behind unlikely performances

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the University of Virginia or Michigan State will advance to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

When Virginia center Mike Tobey prepared to launch a three-point attempt Sunday night, a win over No. 8 seed Memphis in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 long since secured, the rest of his teammates instinctively looked toward Coach Tony Bennett.

Sophomore Justin Anderson started muttering, ‘No, no, no,” as the ball sailed through the air. Even after it swished through the net, and the Cavaliers broke into euphoria on the sideline, Tobey understood he had dodged a bullet.

“I knew if I missed it, it could have been bad news for me,” said Tobey, who is 6 feet 11, with a sheepish smile.

Often the brunt of jokes within Virginia’s locker room, Tobey’s audacity was a welcome sign on a weekend when the Cavaliers received contributions from all over the roster.

And it was the latest proof that depth could be their biggest asset going forward.

On Friday, as top-seeded Virginia struggled to pull away from No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina, seldom-used sophomore Evan Nolte saved the day by scoring eight points in a three-minute span during the second half. He had tallied just nine points in the previous 10 games.

And when the Cavaliers crushed the Tigers on Sunday to advance to their first round of 16 since 1995, Tobey proved to be the catalyst early when the game remained in doubt.

Both had seen their playing time dwindle while Virginia racked up wins in 17 of its past 18 games and won the ACC’s regular season and tournament championships. But their re-emergence could prove crucial when the Cavaliers take on No. 4 seed Michigan State in New York on Friday night.

“When those guys can come in, just put more pressure, a team doesn’t want to keep playing,” forward Akil Mitchell said.

Tobey has been an enigma all season. He is armed with tantalizing size and a soft touch few big men can call upon. But he is a frequent target of Bennett’s ire during practice, senior Joe Harris said, because his aggression can come and go on a play-by-play basis.

Though Tobey has been a mainstay in the starting lineup, Bennett has increasingly turned to forward Anthony Gill in crunch time.

“It’s funny because, Tobey in practice, there will be times he’ll just get so upset with himself and guys will be trying to get on him, telling him to do this and do that,” Harris said. “Tobey when he gets upset, he’s just so soft spoken that he’ll walk over and be mumbling to himself. . . . His mind-set, I don’t even know. We gotta get him into boxing or something.”

Which is why Sunday was so encouraging. Tobey scored Virginia’s first two field goals and ended with 11 points and six rebounds, just the second time since Feb. 18 he finished in double figures in scoring.

As point guard London Perrantes put it: “Tobey played like a man.”

“He’s the X-factor in those games if he plays physical and he comes out like that,” sophomore Malcolm Brogdon said.

Unlike Tobey, Nolte doesn’t know whether he’ll get in a game or not. For instance, he didn’t play in Virginia’s ACC tournament championship win over Duke.

The infrequent appearances messed with his shooting rhythm, but Nolte said a recent conversation with Bennett’s father, Dick, helped focus him. He then sought out former NBA star Reggie Miller, who was in Raleigh, N.C., calling NCAA tournament games for Turner Sports, for a few shooting pointers.

“I just wanted to pick his brain a little bit, and it was a great experience,” Nolte said. “Like during it, I was like, ‘This is Reggie Miller.’ ”

His newfound confidence came through during two breakout performances this weekend, and it reminded everyone in the locker room that the Macon, Ga., native is two years removed from being one of the nation’s top 100 recruits.

“This is the beautiful thing about this season because everyone is so happy for each other,” Anderson said. “Nobody could be more happy for guys like Evan, who was just so patient, who came out of high school and had a great career in high school, well known in high school, and he’s bought into a system that he’s gonna be successful in.”

They were never more happy than when the 6-foot-8 Nolte capped off the night with a thunderous dunk in the final minutes, his first slam since high school.

“We call Evan, ‘Take off’ because he dunks once every two years,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “To see him dunk on somebody was huge.”

Mark Giannotto covers Virginia and Virginia Tech for The Washington Post.
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