By HANK KURZ Jr., AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
Virginia coach Tony Bennett has used six different starting lineups in 12 games and is still looking for the right blend.
One of the changes he made Monday night, taking Akil Mitchell out of the starting five for the first time in nearly two years, may have helped the senior forward finally find his game after struggling through the first 11.
“It felt a little weird,” Mitchell said of not being on the court at the start for the first time since Jan. 19, 2012 against Georgia Tech, “but it didn’t throw me off at all. I actually felt more in rhythm than I have all year.”
Mitchell had eight points, seven rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes as the Cavaliers beat Norfolk State 66-56. Justin Anderson led the Cavaliers with 14 points and Joe Harris had 12, but Bennett liked what he saw when Mitchell checked in.
“He reacted how I wanted. He played well. He played how he needed to play. He stayed within himself, gave us a great lift, defended, rebounded,” Bennett said. “That’s what matters — how you respond.”
Mitchell, Virginia’s No. 2 scorer last season with a 13.1 average, is sixth on the team this year with a 6.1 scoring average and shooting just 45 percent. Last year, he shot 54 percent, and he said he’s not sure why, but felt better on Monday night.
“I just felt I was in a little better rhythm, a little better place mentally this game,” he said.
The Cavaliers (9-3) overcame a sloppy performance in their next-to-last tuneup before beginning Atlantic Coast Conference play, using a 20-5 run in the second half to take command after the Spartans rallied to pull even at 32.
Norfolk State (8-5), which lost to Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena last season in the opening round of the NIT, got 12 points from Pendarvis Williams and 10 from Marese Phelps, but the Spartans’ hopes of hanging around and keeping it close and then pulling a surprise were done in by a nearly 5 1/2-minute scoreless stretch as Virginia expanded its lead.
“The thing we’ve seen as a team this year is that the game’s never over,” Spartans coach Robert Jones said. “We were down eight at Boston (University) with two minutes left and we came back and won that game. We were up 17 against East Carolina with seven minutes left and lost, so we’ve seen first-hand that the game is never over.”
Bennett’s lineup juggling also found Anthony Gill, the team’s third-leading scorer at 9.2 points per game, on the bench for all of the first half, and when he came in at the 17:37 mark of the second half, he helped sparked the game-changing run.
It started with nine consecutive points, and Gill scored five of them. He finished with seven.
“He came in ready and gave us a great lift,” Bennett said.
And one that was necessary after a sloppy start after the intermission. The Spartans erased a 32-26 halftime deficit by forcing turnovers on four of Virginia’s first five possessions in the second half, prompting Bennett to call for a timeout.
“To start the way we did in the second half is unacceptable,” Bennett said. “It looked like we were just messing around.”
The Spartans got a jumper from Kievyn Lila-St. Rose and a 3-pointer from Williams around a three-point play by Joe Harris, closing to within 44-37. But London Perrantes and Mitchell each made a pair of free throws for Virginia and baskets by Anderson and Teven Jones pushed the lead to 52-37.
Brandon Goode finally ended the Cavaliers’ 20-5 run with 7:51 remaining, ending a scoreless drought of nearly 5 1/2 minutes for the Spartans, but their 35 percent (20-55) shooting kept them from making a charge.
NORFOLK ST. (8-5)
Alexis 2-4 2-2 6, Goode 3-7 0-0 6, Fuentes 1-6 7-12 9, Williams 4-10 2-2 12, Hawkins 4-9 0-0 10, Lila-St. Rose 1-3 1-2 3, Phelps 5-14 0-0 10, Estime 0-1 0-0 0, Maye 0-1 0-0 0, Vinogradovas 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-55 12-18 56.
Atkins 2-2 0-2 4, Anderson 4-9 5-6 14, Harris 3-6 6-7 12, Brogdon 1-7 4-4 7, Perrantes 0-3 4-4 4, T. Jones 1-2 2-3 4, Tobey 1-4 1-2 3, Nolte 1-1 0-0 3, Gill 2-2 3-5 7, Mitchell 3-4 2-6 8. Totals 18-40 27-39 66.
Halftime—Virginia 32-26. 3-Point Goals—Norfolk St. 4-15 (Hawkins 2-4, Williams 2-4, Estime 0-1, Lila-St. Rose 0-2, Phelps 0-2, Alexis 0-2), Virginia 3-10 (Nolte 1-1, Brogdon 1-3, Anderson 1-3, Harris 0-1, Perrantes 0-2). Fouled Out—Alexis. Rebounds—Norfolk St. 31 (Goode 7), Virginia 36 (Anderson 8). Assists—Norfolk St. 8 (Fuentes 4), Virginia 11 (Anderson 3). Total Fouls—Norfolk St. 24, Virginia 15. A—9,206.