CHARLOTTESVILLE – From the sound of things Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, most of the announced crowd of 8,661 that showed up to watch No. 23 Virginia host Maryland-Eastern Shore came to see the shiny new toy they’d heard was going to be unwrapped a little early.
And so every time freshman guard Paul Jesperson entered the game, made a shot, missed a shot or demonstrated even a glimmer of promise, a healthy ovation followed.
But as much as Virginia’s 69-42 win was about Jesperson’s collegiate debut — the Merrill, Wis., native made the cover of the gameday program — it also provided an extended peek at the abilities of the Cavaliers’ key reserves.
Virginia (11-1) began the second half on a 12-3 run that essentially cemented the final outcome and afforded Coach Tony Bennett the luxury of liberating his bench. Freshman forward Darion Atkins tallied career highs in points (13), rebounds (seven) and minutes (20). Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon saw more court action (23 minutes) than starters Mike Scott and Assane Sene.
Jesperson had been scheduled to redshirt this season before recent attrition scrapped that plan. He finished with five points in 15 minutes.
“At one point I looked up, and I was the oldest guy out there,” said sophomore forward Akil Mitchell, who finished with nine points and nine rebounds as a reserve. “That was kind of weird to see.”
The Cavaliers’ locker room and Mitchell’s apartment have been a little more vacant the past few days. On Friday, Bennett sent his players a text message informing them sophomore guard KT Harrell — one of Mitchell’s roommates and a member of Virginia’s eight-man rotation — had elected to transfer.
Bennett sent out a similar text message the next day: Redshirt freshman forward James Johnson — another Mitchell roommate — was departing as well.
“It’s been kind of a tough week,” said Mitchell, whose lone remaining roommate is sophomore walk-on Thomas Rogers. “I had talked to [Harrell and Johnson] about transferring, and I kind of knew they weren’t happy. But I wasn’t really expecting it at this point in the year.”
Neither was Jesperson. He said he’d grown comfortable with his decision to sit out this season and concentrate purely on his development. But with his team down to nine scholarship players, he knew he suddenly was needed in a different capacity.
With 9 minutes 19 seconds remaining in the first half, Jesperson checked into the game amid a roar of cheers from the crowd. He’d never played before an audience that large before, and he said it took a few minutes for his nerves to settle.
Jesperson made a three-pointer from the corner with 10 minutes to play in the second half, and Virginia fans gave perhaps their loudest ovation of the night. Their newest prize had made the first shot of his collegiate career; so what if he missed four of his final five attempts?
“It’s unfortunate for KT and James to leave the program. They were two really good guys, really good teammates,” Jesperson said. “But at the same time, I’m excited because I get to play now, you know? Ultimately, that’s what I want to be able to do.”
Bennett said he plans to play Jesperson as much as possible in Virginia’s two remaining non-conference games, but Jesperson’s role in ACC play remains undefined. Bennett also said he is comfortable with an eight-man rotation, and right now, Jesperson is the ninth man.
“Anybody who has some smarts and feel can usually figure out a way to help you, and that’s my hope for” Jesperson, Bennett said. “It was for the future. But the future is now in his case, and I’m glad he got 15 minutes tonight.”
●NOTRE DAME 72, PITTSBURGH 59: Alex Dragicevich hit four three-pointers and scored a career-high 22 points to lead the host Fighting Irish past the 22nd-ranked Panthers in the Big East opener for both teams.
“I have been a part of a lot of fun games here,” Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said. “But this one ranks right up there with the best.”
Jerian Grant added 15 points and nine assists and Eric Atkins also scored 15 points for the Irish (9-5, 1-0 Big East).
Notre Dame trailed 26-25 at intermission but missed only seven shots in the final 20 minutes.
The onslaught was led by Dragicevich, who scored 17 points in the second half and made all three of his long range attempts.
Talib Zanna had 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Panthers (11-3, 0-1).
●WISCONSIN 64, NEBRASKA 40: Ryan Evans scored a career-high 22 points and the 11th-ranked Badgers (12-2, 1-0 Big Ten) defeated the injury-plagued Cornhuskers. Host Nebraska (8-4, 0-1) trailed by five early in the second half when the Badgers went on a 27-5 run to put the game out of reach.