CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the future, when he thinks about Tuesday night, freshman Mike Tobey will likely remember it as the moment he was fully embraced by the Virginia faithful. Twice, the student section at John Paul Jones Arena chanted “To-bey, To-bey,” after the forward’s inspired play ignited his team and the home crowd when both needed it most.
But moments after Virginia came away with a 58-55 upset over No. 19 North Carolina State, Tobey wasn’t ready to forget the “nerve-racking” final sequences that helped the Cavaliers secure their fourth straight win. On a night when another first-year player rose to prominence, Virginia’s veterans and the familiar tenet of defense once again delivered in the clutch.
Junior Joe Harris tied his season-high with 22 points, including seven of Virginia’s final 13 points, and forward Akil Mitchell capped off his seventh double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds) by scoring what proved to be the game-winning basket on a jumper with 3 minutes 58 seconds remaining.
Senior Jontel Evans gave Virginia its final margin of victory by sinking what he later called “the biggest free throws of my basketball career” with 26 seconds left. He had missed three just before halftime.
Virginia’s defense took care of the rest as the Cavaliers locked down the ACC’s highest-scoring team on five straight possessions to end the game. When a three-pointer by Wolfpack forward Scott Wood fell short at the buzzer, a raucous crowd of 10,977 celebrated Virginia’s third win in six days.
“We’re touching on something very special,” Evans said after Virginia (15-5, 5-2 ACC) grabbed sole possession of second place in the league standings. “A lot of guys have bought into the system. Guys are playing their roles at a very high level and we’re doing it as a unit.”
That includes three freshmen. After guard Justin Anderson and forward Evan Nolte emerged in recent games, it was Tobey’s turn to show how bright the future may be in Charlottesville. The 6-foot-11 forward, who only turned 18 this fall, finished with 13 points and seven rebounds, many of them coming at crucial times.
In the first half, he had a key offensive rebound, ripping the ball away from North Carolina State forward Richard Howell and converting a layup. The play brought Virginia’s bench to its feet and helped the Cavaliers dig out of an early double-digit hole.
Virginia took its first lead when Tobey hit a jumper from the free throw line with just more than 12 minutes remaining in the game. It proved to Coach Tony Bennett once again that his talented freshmen “can perform in those settings. . . . I think they bring a different dimension.”
“The coaches have just been telling us all week, ‘These guys, they’re not that much better than you,’ ” Tobey said.
The Wolfpack (16-5. 5-3), though, wouldn’t go down easily. Forward C.J. Leslie, who did not start because of an illness, had his way at times with Virginia’s interior defenders. He finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds. North Carolina State needed that production after point guard Lorenzo Brown went down with an ankle injury midway through the first half and did not return. Bennett called the Wolfpack the most physical and athletic team Virginia has faced this season.
North Carolina State led by five after Wood hit a three-pointer with just more than eight minutes left in regulation. But Tobey soon tied the score at 49 with another jumper and Harris gave Virginia the lead for good when North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren fouled him while shooting a three-pointer.
It was the sort of synergy between young and old the Cavaliers have been in search of all year long.
“We’re kind of peaking at the right time,” Mitchell said.