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Virginia vs. Florida State: Cavs looking for offense beyond Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell

By Mark Giannotto,

Virginia’s Joe Harris dragged his hand through his hair methodically, shrugging his shoulders as he pondered the question.

His postgame interviews are usually replete with descriptions of how exactly the Cavaliers succeeded or failed on the floor, the sort of X’s and O’s tutorial one expects from the son of a high school basketball coach. But Sunday at Boston College, Harris needed help coming up with answers as to why Virginia had just suffered what he deemed its most disappointing loss of the year.

“It’s not like we were taking Boston College lightly by any means,” Harris said after the Cavaliers lost to the Eagles, 53-52. “You know how important all these games are for our tournament resume.”

Despite that sentiment, Sunday’s setback had an all too familiar ring to it. Harris, it appears, could use some more help.

Virginia, which is just 3-8 away from John Paul Jones Arena, stumbled on the road because of an offense that featured few playmakers with Harris stalled. Its defense then faltered in a crucial moment when freshman Justin Anderson left Boston College’s Joe Rahon open for a game-winning three-pointer with eight seconds remaining.

It’s a story line that could apply to any number of Virginia losses, whether it be a season-opening defeat at George Mason, a disastrous showing against a five-win Old Dominion squad just before Christmas or a missed opportunity at ACC leader Miami last month. So less than a week after Virginia looked as if it might enjoy a relatively stress-free Selection Sunday when it upset No. 3 Duke, the Cavaliers (20-9, 10-6) find themselves in desperate straits again as they seek their first win at Florida State since 2001 on Thursday night.

But even though Harris tallied just 14 points on 4-of-11 shooting in Virginia’s latest setback, the four minutes he wasn’t in the game proved crucial. With Harris resting, Virginia was outscored by Boston College, 12-3. During the five minutes junior Akil Mitchell spent on the bench, the Cavaliers were also outscored, 14-5.

“When Joe and Akil aren’t in there, you have to try to be creative,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said of his two leading scorers. “I wouldn’t say our depth is terrific, but that’s part of who we are.”

The Cavaliers need more production from a trio of freshmen. Forward Evan Nolte, center Mike Tobey and Anderson have all shown flashes of what they could become, but each has hit something of a rookie wall of late.

Nolte has finished in double digits in scoring once during ACC play, and he’s shooting just 31.3 percent the past 10 games. Anderson, an asset defensively because of his versatility, has struggled with his jump shot since pouring in a career-high 17 points at Maryland last month. Tobey, meanwhile, has looked out of sync since returning Feb. 24 from a bout with mononucleosis that forced him to miss five games.

“Most of our freshmen have struggled to score the ball lately, and I think that’s when we’ve been good, when we have that balanced attack,” Bennett said.

The Cavaliers left Charlottesville on Tuesday on an 11:55 p.m. charter flight out of Richmond to avoid the winter weather. Avoiding the NCAA tournament bubble, though, has been a far more difficult proposition.

Seven of Virginia’s nine defeats this year have come against teams rated lower than No. 117 in the Ratings Percentage Index. So atoning for the latest one at Florida State (15-14, 7-9) might be necessary with so many question marks on the Cavaliers’ resume.

“It’s challenging to go on the road, and I think sometimes our inexperience shows,” Bennett said. “That’s why when you have some that you feel you can maybe get, it stings more when you don’t get it, and that’s happened to us a couple times.”

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