CHARLOTTESVILLE — Senior Joe Harris said it didn’t bother him, that when teammates or even strangers often told him to shoot the ball more in recent weeks, he simply shrugged it off. But he sure seemed to offer a definitive answer to his critics Monday night.
With Harris clicking from outside, No. 17 Virginia held off a late charge to secure a 61-53 victory over Maryland at John Paul Jones Arena and extend its best start in conference play since 1981-82.
Harris was the key cog during a second-half surge that gave the Cavaliers (20-5, 11-1) some breathing room: He scored 16 of his game-high 19 points after halftime. There were moments when he couldn’t miss, and the Chelan, Wash., native ended up with more points than he had scored in any other ACC contest this year.
For a time, it seemed Maryland’s last trip to Charlottesville as a member of the ACC would end without much drama. But after Virginia took an 11-point lead on a jump shot by point guard London Perrantes with 4 minutes 53 seconds remaining, the Terrapins (14-11, 6-6) came roaring back on a 9-2 run and cut the deficit to 54-50 with just more than two minutes remaining.
Maryland had a chance to draw even closer, but forward Evan Smotrycz (3 of 13 from the field) missed two open three-pointers in the final 80 seconds, one of which Coach Mark Turgeon lamented “went all the way in and bounced out.”
Instead, the Cavaliers proceeded to hit seven of their next eight free throws to ice an eighth straight win.
“The run we were making, the pressure we [had] on, we wouldn’t have had to foul,” Turgeon said. “It would have been big.”
Virginia forward Akil Mitchell added 13 points and six rebounds and guard Malcolm Brogdon had 14 points. But it was an emphatic block by sophomore Justin Anderson midway through the second half that turned the game in the Cavaliers’ favor for good.
The sequence began with the All-Met from Montrose Christian stalking the play from behind, and giving Maryland freshman Roddy Peters the impression that he would have an easy lay-in at the end of a fast break. It came to a halt when Anderson swatted the attempt directly off the backboard.
“I don’t know why people lay the ball up. You should know on film, that’s what he loves to do,” Mitchell said.
In an instant, Harris had the ball beyond the arc on the other end and nailed a three-pointer that sent 11,568 fans into a frenzy. Before the Terrapins knew what hit them, Virginia had turned a tie game into a 44-35 lead courtesy of a 9-0 surge with less than 10 minutes left.
Harris also woke up a listless crowd early in the second half, nailing back-to-back three-pointers, the second one hanging on the rim for a good second before falling through the net to give Virginia a 33-29 lead heading into a break. He had been just 1 for 6 from the field prior to that burst.
“It was pretty sweet to see him run down the court,” Anderson said of Harris. “Once he starts throwing up signs and throwing up the three ball signs, that’s when you know he’s ready to lock and load.”
Maryland, still in search of a marquee victory this season, was paced by sophomore Seth Allen’s 15 points and guard Dez Wells chipped in with 12. But too often, the Terrapins’ offense grew stagnant and they finished with just nine assists and 10 turnovers.
Allen proved effective early on, knifing his way into the lane at will. Turgeon also used a three-quarter court press and 1-3-1 zone extensively, and initially, it seemed to bother the Cavaliers.
But following a timeout by Virginia Coach Tony Bennett with 1.8 seconds remaining in the opening period, Brogdon found Mitchell under the basket on the ensuing inbounds pass and the senior cut Maryland’s halftime lead to 26-25 with an emphatic dunk right before the buzzer sounded.
Harris, who attempted just four shots in the first half, took care of the rest.