RALEIGH, N.C. — Virginia forward Akil Mitchell posed in midair for an extra split second, his legs splayed in either direction and his right arm coming around like a fulcrum to complete a windmill jam worthy of a dunk contest.
On the sideline, North Carolina State Coach Mark Gottfried cringed before the ball had even thundered through the net, this latest barrage coming just moments after one Wolfpack fan at PNC Arena screamed, “Hey Gottfried, we want our money back!” during the silence of a free throw attempt.
But Mitchell wanted to savor this, with Virginia rolling to a historic 76-45 victory over North Carolina State, the team that ultimately ended the Cavaliers’ NCAA tournament hopes a year ago in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
The highlight-reel play was the exclamation point on a first half Mitchell could have only conjured up in his dreams. The Cavaliers led by 25 at that point and when the final buzzer sounded, they had dealt the Wolfpack their worst home loss since the 1992-93 season.
“I practice it every day,” Mitchell said with a smile. “We couldn’t have put together a better half of basketball. I think we really frustrated them. . . . That dunk was kind of to cap it all off.”
Virginia is 3-0 in ACC play for the first time in four years, and the latest triumph is more proof it has turned a corner since the calendar turned to 2014. If only Coach Tony Bennett could replicate the 20-minute clinic that quickly turned Saturday’s affair into a rout when the Cavaliers play at No. 16 Duke on Monday night.
Virginia (12-4 overall) scored on 17 of its first 20 possessions, hit 15 of its initial 21 shots and used an early 15-0 surge to build a substantial lead that it never did relinquish. For a second straight game, the Cavaliers set a new season high with 48 first-half points. They haven’t trailed in a game since their 87-52 defeat to Tennessee on Dec. 30.
“That’s what happened to us against Tennessee. . . . We’ve been on the other end of that,” Bennett said. “They were really cold. They were off, and that helped. They couldn’t buy a bucket. They just had one of those games and we had one of those games.”
The sheer number of contributors was the most impressive part. Sophomore center Mike Tobey had his best game in two months, establishing position down low against North Carolina State’s overmatched big men and racking up 16 points and seven rebounds. As a team, Virginia scored 38 points in the paint, including 24 before halftime.
Cavaliers standout Joe Harris, meanwhile, had his best two-way performance of the year, according to Bennett. The senior poured in 16 points and limited the Wolfpack’s T.J. Warren to four points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field. Warren entered Saturday as the ACC’s leading scorer at 23.4 points per game.
“He accepted that challenge,” Bennett said of Harris. “Sometimes you say, ‘Well, we don’t want to put our guy on their leading scorer. What if he gets in foul trouble?’
“But with our matchups, he did a good job.”
Guard Malcolm Brogdon chipped in 13 points and Mitchell had eight points and 12 rebounds on an evening when nine Virginia players had at least one field goal.
Even with a 25-point lead, the Cavaliers didn’t let up on defense after halftime. Though Virginia shot just 34.4 percent in the second half, it held the Wolfpack (11-5, 1-2) to just six field goals over the final 20 minutes of regulation.
North Carolina State hit only 28.9 percent of its attempts for the game and committed 16 turnovers.
“We’re finally coming together, which is a good thing,” Tobey said.