When Virginia had finished orchestrating its biggest comeback since 2006 in a dramatic 61-58 overtime victory over Maryland on Sunday night, 11,794 nervous fans at John Paul Jones Arena, collectively exhaled. Senior point guard Jontel Evans shed tears of joy on the court and in the locker room. Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett, never one to savor a victory, even cracked jokes during his postgame news conference.
Inside a small auditorium in front of reporters, freshman center Mike Tobey smiled. He conceded his game-winning tip-in during overtime was “lucky,” because it went off the fingertips of Maryland center Alex Len. He was the third option on Virginia’s inbounds play with six seconds remaining in regulation, but classmate Justin Anderson somehow threaded a line-drive pass to him for an easy lay-in that sent the game to overtime.
Without Tobey and Anderson, though, Virginia likely would be stewing over a loss that would have all but ended its NCAA tournament hopes. Each played a crucial role in jump-starting the Cavaliers after a sluggish first half.
Anderson got the momentum started, nailing a three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer that trimmed Virginia’s deficit to 13 entering the second half. But it was Anderson’s all-around game — he finished with eight points, six rebounds, three assists and a career high five blocks — that left the biggest mark on Virginia comeback from a 17-point deficit.
He started the night by swatting Len’s first shot of the game and then ended regulation by blocking Maryland’s Pe’Shon Howard. Bennett raved about his defensive presence after the game.
“When you can make plays like Justin can and cover up a breakdown and come out of nowhere and block a shot — either his own man if his guy breaks down or coming across the middle — those are huge plays because he’s so powerful and athletic,” Bennett said. “It can make your defense look a little better when you’ve got guys erasing it.
“I didn’t realize he had five blocks . . . Every one was significant.”
Anderson, a one-time Maryland commit, had taken some heat on message boards of late. He has scored in double figures just once since that breakout performance since pouring in a career-high 17 points in Virginia’s win over the Terrapins in College Park last month.
After Anderson attempted just 10 shots in Virginia’s three previous games, some even wondered if Bennett’s methodical system was holding back the uber talented forward. But he put that theory to rest quickly when asked following Sunday’s win, saying his assertiveness came about from watching leading scorer Joe Harris struggle with his shot early on.
“I never want to just look for my shot because I’m not scoring or I’m not averaging a lot of points,” Anderson said. “I think it’s only a select few people that know what our system is about, and I want to be that system player. I want to be that player that does whatever it takes, the gritty player that gets us to where we need to be.”
Tobey also had his most encouraging performance in quite some time. After missing five games last month because of a bout with mononucleosis, he had been slow to return to form. But he followed a 12-point, seven-rebound showing at Florida State with another 13 points and six rebounds Sunday, to go along with those two clutch baskets.
Bennett said he had been riding Tobey in practice of late, knowing how important the freshman would be if Virginia were to close the season well. Bennett’s message was simple: “He laid in bed for two weeks, He better give us something.”
When told of that comment, Tobey laughed. He’s still not sure how he got mono, joking recently that he must have “taken a drink from the wrong cup or something.” After helping orchestrate a season-saving win, though, all of his coach’s barbs seemed worth it.
“He’s just been helping me through this process of getting the rust off,” Tobey said. “This was a great, gutsy win for us and it’s gonna help us with momentum going forward.”