Forgive Virginia Coach Tony Bennett if he’s sick of dealing with lower extremity injuries.
A season after the Cavaliers were down to just seven scholarship players by the NCAA tournament, Bennett watched senior point guard Jontel Evans miss nine games, and have two averted comebacks, because of offseason foot surgery. Not to mention, sophomore Malcolm Brogdon never even took the court this year, relegated to a redshirt year because of a foot injury suffered at the end of last season that was slow to heal.
So when senior forward Akil Mitchell, who has emerged as Virginia’s second-leading scorer this season, went down with a sprained ankle during practice Thursday, you can imagine Bennett’s dismay. But after the combination of what Mitchell called “literally a miracle” and the return of Evans, the Cavaliers finally caught a break in Sunday night’s resounding win over North Carolina and the sense of relief Bennett got from it was evident.
“I thought that was the first time we looked at least, I mean, Malcolm isn’t there, but how we were supposed to look,” he said in his postgame news conference.
That’s not to say Virginia is done with the injury bug. Mitchell hobbled out of John Paul Jones Arena the same way he arrived Sunday: in a walking boot. Bennett didn’t think he would play against the Tar Heels, admitting that Mitchell went through eight treatments in four days with athletic trainer Ethan Saliba and was really just going on “adrenaline.”
“You got a while,” said Mitchell when asked what it took for him to be available Sunday. “I had about three layers of tape on it. I’ve been in ice machines literally six hours a day, I’d say. I’ve been taking Aleve to reduce the swelling. [Saliba has] been doing Electro-stim things. I’ve been here probably about seven, eight hours a day.”
Mitchell, who somehow scored seven points, grabbed 11 rebounds and kept Tar Heels leading scorer James Michael McAdoo in check most of the night, also did his best to keep the ailment secret ahead of Virginia’s ACC opener.
“My mom posted something on Facebook and I had to tell her to take it down so nobody would know,” he said, noting Saliba thinks he’s at least a week ahead of schedule.
Evans was in the training room with Saliba when Mitchell initially hurt his ankle during the first drill of practice Thursday and immediately thought, “Man we can’t lose this guy.”
But it was Evans’s presence on the floor for the first time since Dec. 5 that paid huge dividends in the second half for Virginia. Evans finished with eight points and a team-high six assists in 21 minutes, committing no turnovers after halftime. Bennett certainly noticed him out there, noting after the game that the Hampton native’s ability to attack the paint “makes all the difference.”
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams didn’t disagree as Evans’s penetration ended up giving sharpshooters Paul Jesperson and Evan Nolte open looks from outside.
“We couldn’t stop him from getting to the basket,” Williams said. “They dominated both ends of the court in the second half.”
Added junior Joe Harris, Virginia’s leading scorer once again Sunday night: “Jontel, he’s a veteran player. He understands what Coach wants. He’s very good at coming in and dictating the pace offensively. I felt like when he came in, he did a good job of slowing things down.”