CHARLOTTESVILLE — To begin Virginia’s postgame news conference Wednesday night, a reporter started a question for Coach Tony Bennett with the observation that the Cavaliers’ 46-38 victory over Tennessee “wasn’t the prettiest win.”
That seemed to be an understatement on an evening when Virginia finished with its fewest points in a win since 1982. But before anyone got the idea that Bennett disapproved of a game dominated by defense and a methodical pace, the coach quickly cut off his questioner.
“It looked great to me,” he said. “I’ll take it.”
It seems Virginia has recaptured the style of play that Bennett is known for and Wednesday proved to be the latest example of how it could make the Cavaliers (7-2) a threat over the coming months. They have reeled off six straight wins and have no more power-conference foes left on their schedule before ACC play begins.
Forward Akil Mitchell was Virginia’s best offensive weapon, notching his fourth double-double of the season by scoring 13 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. His front-court mate, sophomore Darion Atkins (eight points, five rebounds, three blocks), led a defense that held Tennessee’s leading scorer, Jarnell Stokes, to five points and finished with eight blocks, tied for the most during the Bennett era at Virginia.
Mitchell and Atkins also combined for 12 points during a 17-2 run in the first half that gave the Cavaliers a 15-point lead.
But the victory over the Volunteers (4-3), who were coming off a loss to Georgetown in which they mustered only 36 points, may be costly for Virginia. With 13 minutes 41 seconds remaining in the second half, point guard Jontel Evans was taken to the locker room favoring the right foot he had surgically repaired in the offseason.
After the game, Bennett said Evans would undergo X-rays. Mitchell noted Evans “was really upset” in the locker room, but told teammates he had simply tweaked the injury.
“I hope it’s not anything too bad,” Bennett said.
With Evans sidelined, Tennessee mounted one of its few rallies of the contest. After the Cavaliers took a 12-point lead midway through the second half, Virginia went more than seven minutes without a point, missing seven consecutive shots and committing three turnovers. The Volunteers responded with a 12-2 run, cutting the deficit to 38-33 with 5:15 remaining.
But even during that surge, Bennett called the Cavaliers’ defense in the paint “the key for us when we had to weather the storm when we were shaky, particularly in the paint.” And it ensured Tennessee would get no closer.
On Virginia’s ensuing possession, shooting guard Joe Harris (13 points) found Mitchell for a layup off a pick-and-roll to end the scoring drought. Freshman Teven Jones, playing for Evans, then hit two clutch free throws to ice the game despite a short delay caused by a scoreboard malfunction.
Tennessee finished the night shooting just 28.8 percent, and the Cavaliers couldn’t have been happier about it. Virginia is 4-0 this season, and 21-1 under Bennett, when holding an opponent to fewer than 50 points.
“They’re not pretty games. They’re not fun games to watch,” Mitchell said. “But since I’ve been here, there’s no greater satisfaction than holding a team and frustrating them with your defense. I think the guys in the locker room really like it. I’m not sure the fans like it so much.”