CHARLOTTESVILLE — The 0-fer isn’t what bothered Virginia star Joe Harris.
After finishing without a field goal for just the third time in his career last Saturday against Davidson, the senior was more upset with the 45 defensive breakdowns committed by the Cavaliers. Being limited to just one point — a new career low — meant little to the first team all-ACC selection.
But when he calmly stroked a three-pointer on his first shot attempt Tuesday night — ending a field goal drought of more than 53 minutes of game action dating to last week’s loss to No. 10 Virginia Commwealth — the rest of John Paul Jones Arena could finally exhale.
That Virginia beat Navy, 67-42, was secondary.
“Everybody’s thinking, ‘Oh, it’s on. We’re gonna have a good night,’” guard Malcolm Brogdon said, describing the sensation when Harris scored the first of his 16 points. “Because if Joe’s hitting shots, everyone’s gonna be playing well together.”
It was about the only suspense since Virginia never trailed Navy in the first meeting between the two schools since 1974.
Cavaliers forward Anthony Gill finished with a career-high 18 points off the bench, including 11-straight at one point during the second half, and center Mike Tobey and Brogdon each added 13 points on a night when Virginia (3-1) shot a season-high 56.6 percent from the floor.
But it was the re-ignition of Harris, the team’s leading scorer a year ago, that could prove crucial. He went 7 of 8 from the floor and did it all within the flow of the offense.
“When you see the first one go down, you definitely feel good about yourself and maybe be a little more aggressive from there on out,” Harris said.
Navy hung around as best it could, but the Midshipmen lost control when they committed six straight turnovers, and went more than six minutes without a field goal, in the latter stages of the first half. Virginia, in turn, embarked on a 13-0 surge and its lead never fell below 14 points after halftime.
A year ago, however, Virginia wouldn’t have been capable of winning so easily had Harris been mired in a shooting slump. But the Cavaliers’ deep front court has been dominant in stretches the past few games.
Navy had no answer for Tobey, who made his first start of the season, and Gill inside as the Cavaliers finished with 42 points in the paint and a 40-19 edge in rebounding.
Virginia Coach Tony Bennett talked after the game about the plethora of lineup combinations he can use since Tobey and Gill are more offensive-oriented and senior Akil Mitchell and junior Darion Atkins (Landon) excel on the defensive end of the floor. He could even turn to three of his big men at the same time.
“That four-man front that I’ve been playing, it’s one of our strengths,” Bennett said.
But there is no confusing who the Cavaliers will turn to when they inevitably find themselves in another close finish, such as that three-point loss to VCU last week. So perhaps no shot Harris took Tuesday night was more important than the first one.
“We want him to have a green-light mentality,” Bennett said. “You want him to hunt.”