But while defense defines the way Coach Tony Bennett wants his inexperienced group to play, it was an early offensive explosion that proved to be a huge relief for Virginia players and fans alike.
From the start, the Cavaliers simply looked like a different team than the one that averaged 48 points in losses to Wake Forest and Clemson in their previous two games. They opened an 8-2 lead and went on another 10-0 run that brought the crowd of 12,303 at John Paul Jones Arena out of its seats several times.
The Cavaliers scored 24 points in the first 10 minutes, hitting six of their first seven three-pointers after mustering just 20 points the entire first half at Clemson a week earlier. Guard Joe Harris led the way with a game-high 17 points and forward Akil Mitchell added 13 points.
“We shot the ball so well, and it energized us defensively,” Bennett said after the Cavaliers ended the contest shooting 48.9 percent from the field, the most accurate they’ve been since a Dec. 30 win over Wofford before ACC play began.
Virginia’s lead soon ballooned when it went on a 12-0 surge capped off by a series of explosive plays. Mitchell soared through the lane for a one-handed dunk, and freshman Justin Anderson soon followed suit by blocking 7-foot-1 Florida State center Michael Ojo from behind.
Anderson, who finished with eight points and three blocks, then came down the floor and nailed a three-pointer that gave the Cavaliers a 33-13 lead. Though there was another half to play, Seminoles Coach Leonard Hamilton later admitted that “basically the game was over” on an afternoon in which Florida State (10-7, 2-2) hit just one of its 15 three-point attempts.
“Looking back, I kind of wish we got out a little bit more against Wake and Clemson off the bat,” said Anderson, a former All-Met from Montrose Christian. “But I think those two games set us up for the hungriness that we needed for this game.”
The Cavaliers (12-5, 2-2) did slow down in the second half, scoring just 23 points after halftime and committing 16 turnovers. But even without forward Darion Atkins (Landon), who missed Saturday’s game because of a stress reaction in his right shin, Virginia never trailed after falling behind 2-0 because of another swarming defensive effort.
Freshman Evan Nolte, who started in place of Atkins, hounded Florida State forward Okaro White all game, and Harris limited Florida State star Michael Snaer to just nine points. The Seminoles committed 18 turnovers, including 12 in the first half when the outcome was still in doubt.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, got a much-needed confidence boost with their first win over Florida State since Feb. 17, 2007.
“When we’re hitting shots and we’re up in you defensively, we’re just a tough team to beat,” point guard Jontel Evans said.
Note: Florida State had a scary moment just before the final officials’ timeout of the game when forward Terrance Shannon’s head collided with Nolte’s hip. The redshirt junior lay motionless on the court for nearly 10 minutes before being taken to the U-Va. Medical Center. Hamilton said after the game that Shannon suffered a stinger. A Florida State spokesman later added that Shannon had movement in his extremities and was responsive, but would remain in Charlottesville overnight to receive an MRI exam on his neck.