CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia men’s basketball senior Jontel Evans was already in the midst of a performance that should put to rest any doubts whether he has finally returned to form after foot surgery this past October. But with a double-digit lead slipping away in the second half Sunday, Evans capped off an afternoon he’ll remember as one of his finest by reminding his teammates about the past.
“We owed Georgia Tech one,” Evans said he told them in the huddle. “Don’t let history repeat itself.”
The Cavaliers didn’t, exacting revenge against the Yellow Jackets with an 82-54 rout for their15th consecutive victory at John Paul Jones Arena, the program’s longest home winning streak since Ralph Sampson and Co. won 34 in a row between 1980 and 1983.
The Cavaliers (19-8, 9-5 ACC) also clinched at least a .500 record in league play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1999-00 and 2000-01. But it was the team’s jitterbug point guard who proved to be the catalyst as the team halted a two-game losing streak.
Evans finished with 10 points, eight assists and no turnovers, “the first time I’ve put those numbers up since I’ve been here,” he admitted afterwards.
His most important production, though, came once Georgia Tech cut a 12-point halftime deficit to five following three three-pointers early in the second half. For the 12,232 in attendance, it evoked memories of Feb. 3, when the Yellow Jackets trailed by nine points with eight minutes remaining only to beat the Cavaliers, 66-60, in Atlanta.
In the rematch, Evans settled his teammates on the sideline and took control on the court. The Hampton, Va., native and juniors Akil Mitchell (game-high 18 points) and Joe Harris (15 points) combined to score Virginia’s next 10 points. When freshman Taylor Barnette nailed consecutive three-pointers, the Cavaliers suddenly found themselves on a 16-1 run and up by 20.
Virginia outscored Georgia Tech, 37-14, over the game’s final 14 minutes, increasing its defensive intensity and shoring up its offensive rebounding. Mitchell grabbed seven of his team-high eight rebounds in the second half.
“What sparked us was Jontel Evans’s play, his ability to get to the rim and make some plays,” Coach Tony Bennett said of the surge. “I just thought we became harder to score against.”
The Yellow Jackets (14-12, 4-10) shot just 34.6 percent from the field in the second half and committed 17 turnovers after hitting eight of 13 shots to start the game. Virginia scored 25 points off of those miscues and tallied 46 points in the paint.
With No. 6 Duke looming Thursday, the Cavaliers also received encouraging news in the form of center Mike Tobey. The freshman saw his first action in five games since having mononucleosis diagnosed. He played 15 minutes, scored seven points and grabbed four rebounds in his return. It took some pressure off Mitchell, especially since Bennett chose to rest power forward Darion Atkins, who is nursing a shin injury.
After Virginia scored 70 or more points for the fifth time in six games, Mitchell’s thoughts drifted back to a loss the Cavaliers had hoped to rectify.
“They snuck one against us and we kind of took it personally,” Mitchell said. “We had something we needed to prove to ourselves.”