By HANK KURZ Jr.
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
Justin Anderson scored 15 points, including four key free throws in the final minutes, and Virginia overcame a sloppy offensive performance to beat Norfolk State 67-56 in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night.
Akil Mitchell also had 15 and 11 rebounds for the Cavaliers (22-11), who won despite missing 15 free throws and committing 17 turnovers. Virginia will next play St. John’s, which ousted Saint Joe’s 63-61 earlier Tuesday night.
Virginia led by 10 at halftime, but Norfolk State closed to within 47-44 with 5:41 left before Evan Nolte hit 2 of 4 free throws, Anderson hit four straight and then a 15-foot jumper to push the lead back to 55-47 with two minutes to play.
“We got just enough stops to be successful,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. His team held the Spartans to 26.9 percent shooting (14 of 52) and forced 18 turnovers, but still needed the big plays by Anderson with the outcome in doubt.
“Justin made that big shot and stepped to the line and made some plays,” Bennett said, especially with Mitchell and team scoring leader Joe Harris struggling.
Mitchell scored 13 after halftime, and Harris finished with 12.
Virginia trailed 8-0 early, and Mitchell blamed “a hangover from not making the (NCAA) tournament.
“You’ve kind of got to get yourself up against and revved up again to play in the NIT,” he said. “Everybody dreams of playing in the tournament, and when you don’t make it, the disappointment kind of sits on your chest a little bit.”
Senior Jontel Evans said they better find their desire quickly.
“If we come out like that against St. John’s, it’ll be over,” he said.
Rob Johnson scored 19 and Pendarvis Williams had 14 for the Spartans (21-12), who lost their second straight. Norfolk State had gone unbeaten in 16 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference games before losing is first MEAC tournament game.
The Spartans managed only five points in the last 11 1/2 minutes of the first half and trailed 26-16 at the break.
“I think we played well in the second half, but that little stretch in the first half really hurt us,” coach Anthony Evans said of his team, which last season made history in its first NCAA tournament appearance, beating second-seeded Missouri.
Norfolk State lost five players off the team, but Evans said good things carried over into this season.
“There’s a lot of pride on the basketball team and they knew they were going to be compared to last year’s group,” he said, “so that energy and intensity came back, that winning spirit.”