CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia forward Akil Mitchell showed up to John Paul Jones Arena on Sunday night in a walking boot, the result of a sprained ankle suffered during the first drill in practice Thursday. Upon limping into the postgame news conference, he called it “literally a miracle” that he played in the ACC opener against North Carolina.
Meanwhile, all week the injury focus had been on senior captain Jontel Evans, who hadn’t played in more than a month.
But playing the brand of slow-paced, defense-first basketball Coach Tony Bennett loves, none of that seemed to matter. Virginia surged past North Carolina, 61-52, its first win over the Tar Heels at the Arenathat opened in 2006.
Junior Joe Harris finished with a team-high 19 points, scoring timely baskets driving to the basket as North Carolina tried to keep him from shooting jumpers. But it was the Cavaliers’ stingy defense that was the catalyst on a night when the Tar Heels finished with a season low in points, more than 30 below their average.
The turning point came once North Carolina charged ahead, 36-28, after hitting five of its first six shots to begin the second half. In a flash, momentum shifted with an emphatic block from behind by sophomore forward Darion Atkins. Virginia (11-3, 1-0) quickly responded with a 10-0 surge.
“That definitely ignited us,” Bennett said of Atkins’s block. “Then our defense took hold.”
North Carolina (10-4, 0-1) stayed close until the final media timeout thanks to guard Reggie Bullock, who finished with a game-high 22 points. But after he closed the Tar Heels’ deficit to one with less than three minutes remaining, the Cavaliers put the game away with another 10-0 run.
They outscored the Tar Heels 33-16 over the final 16 minutes and didn’t commit a turnover during that time.
“They had us against the ropes and we came out swinging,” said Evans, who finished with eight points, six assists and three turnovers in his first action since aggravating an offseason foot injury in Virginia’s win over Tennessee on Dec. 5. All of his giveaways came before halftime, when the Cavaliers had nine turnovers.
Virginia also shot 8 of 14 from three-point range, including consecutive long ones from freshman Evan Nolte with less than 10 minutes to go. Sophomore Paul Jesperson added seven second-half points.
But it was the heroic effort of Mitchell that took center stage. He finished with seven points and 11 rebounds and limited North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo to just 10 points despite an injury Bennett was certain would keep him out of the game.
“I was teeter-tottering back and forth until an hour before game time,” said Mitchell, who conceded he’d be leaving the arena wearing the walking boot.
Despite the odds Virginia had to overcome Sunday, Bennett allowed the Cavaliers only 15 seconds to celebrate in the locker room before shutting off the music and putting an end to all dancing. He wanted his players to turn their focus to the next 17 ACC games on the schedule, even if they wanted to savor the first a little longer.
“We made history,” Evans said. “They were undefeated, the only ACC team to be undefeated at JPJ and we’re the team that knocked them off.”