TALLAHASSEE — Virginia Coach Tony Bennett glanced at the final stat sheet and, before taking a swig from a cup of water, admitted he might need a stiffer drink.
For almost three months now, he had tried every lineup imaginable in hopes of finding one that would click. On Saturday, he changed his starters for the fifth consecutive game.
Never, though, could Bennett have predicted the solution would involve his leading scorer spending almost the entire day on the bench. Good thing it barely fazed his team.
Even with senior Joe Harris sidelined for all but two minutes, Virginia held on late for a 62-50 victory at Florida State to open its conference slate and put an embarrassing loss to Tennessee in the rearview mirror. The win was the program’s first in Tallahassee since 2001 and snapped a 17-game losing skid in the state of Florida — 10 of which came against the Seminoles.
Harris left a scoreless game with 17 minutes 37 seconds remaining in the first half following a collision with teammate Akil Mitchell’s knee as he fell to the floor. Bennett said Harris wanted to return to the contest but was ruled out by trainer Ethan Saliba after failing to pass a concussion test on the bench.
His absence became a moot point with the Cavaliers intent on proving Monday’s 87-52 setback at Tennessee was an anomaly. Virginia (10-4, 1-0 ACC), which entered Saturday ranked No. 5 in the nation in scoring defense, returned to its suffocating ways.
Florida State (9-4, 0-1) committed 16 turnovers, and Virginia turned those giveaways into 24 points. The Seminoles shot just 30.8 percent from the field for the game, and they mustered only 17 points and six field goals before halftime.
“Definitely scary to lose your best player on the floor early in the game like that, but we stuck together, made plays and played the pack line to the fullest,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said.
Sophomore Justin Anderson, replacing Harris in the lineup, led Virginia’s charge with 16 points, five rebounds and four assists. Freshman point guard London Perrantes added a career-high 14 points, including three three-pointers, and had no turnovers in 35 minutes.
“We just wanted to leave here with a win because we hadn’t won here in so long,” said Mitchell, who registered his first double-double of the season (11 points, 13 rebounds). “We really needed a bounce-back statement game and all the guys, we rallied around that and showed intensity from the jump. It was like [Harris’s injury] didn’t even matter.”
Virginia’s lead swelled to 22 after a 9-2 run to start the second half. But the Cavaliers had their issues offensively, shooting just 32.8 percent from the floor and making only 12 of 24 free throw attempts in the second half.
The Seminoles scored seven straight points, using two offensive rebounds off their own missed free throws to set up leading scorer Okaro White (15 points) for an alley-oop dunk and a three-pointer that trimmed the margin to 53-46.
The Cavaliers offset that by committing just six turnovers and finishing with 17 offensive rebounds. So even as Mitchell and company missed free throws and easy layups late, Florida State never could climb out of the hole Virginia created with its best player on the bench.
“We left a lot of points out there, but we came away with it. We finished it,” said Bennett, relieved after improving to 5-0 in ACC openers at Virginia. “To do that without Joe is significant.”