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Virginia guard Joe Harris celebrates Virginia's 73-68 win over Duke in Charlottesville on Thursday.
Saturday, March 2, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He had to link his arms with a teammate just to battle his way through the crowd. The exit from this madness? Well, that was elusive here about 11 p.m. Thursday.
Virginia’s Akil Mitchell finally emerged from the confusion on the John Paul Jones Arena floor, poking between two security guards like a triumphant kid finishing a corn maze.
He climbed onto the scorer’s table, raised his arms, turned to the fans and gave this banner night one final scream.
A half-hour later, after the sold-out crowd had finished celebrating a 73-68 victory over No. 3 Duke, Mitchell emerged from the locker room and admitted he was losing his voice.
“There’s no experience like it,” Mitchell said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
So much screaming. From the students, who showed up long before tipoff and stayed well after it was over, spurring their team to a signature win. From Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose frustration with the officiating built in lockstep with Virginia’s lead. From the announcers heaping worthy praise on Joe Harris, whose 36-point night stands as the best scoring effort in the ACC this year.
But Mitchell, too, was screaming. Frequently. The junior forward had an edge to him as he battled Duke standout Mason Plumlee on the defensive end. He hollered after drawing big fouls and scoring big buckets. After diving over the scorer’s table in a futile attempt to fetch a loose ball in the second half, he implored the fans to get even louder.
Somehow, they did.
“It just kind of happened,” the normally mild-mannered Mitchell said with a smile. “When the crowd’s loud like that and you’re in a tough game, the competitive fire comes out.”
Harris was the headliner of this victory, but Mitchell deserves a prime spot next to him. His 19-point, 12-rebound performance included eight rebounds in the first half, when Duke failed to secure any second chances and the Cavaliers built their lead.
“His quickness and his nose for the ball — that was the best I’ve seen from him,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said.
We’ve been seeing the best of Mitchell this year. The team’s second-leading scorer with 12.8 points a game, he’s more than tripled his scoring average from last season, when he was overshadowed in the post by All-ACC performer Mike Scott. His field goal percentage has risen from a solid .505 last year to .537.
Even his free-throw percentage is up. Formerly a 50-50 proposition to make those, he’s hitting 70 percent after his 9-for-10 effort Thursday.
“He’s just an example of when you put in the hard work, it pays off,” point guard Jontel Evans said. “He’s been playing unbelievable basketball this year. … A lot of people criticized him, saying he wasn’t that good, but he’s proving all of the doubters wrong.”
The Duke game held special meaning to everybody, but particularly Mitchell. The Charlotte, N.C., native grew up rooting for the Blue Devils. He attended their camps as a kid. He knows Seth Curry well and faced Plumlee in high school.
In fact, Mitchell said he’d still be inclined to pull for the Blue Devils if they were playing some random team out West and the result had no bearing on UVa.
But Thursday, nobody seemed to want the Blue Devils to lose more than Mitchell, and it showed. Mitchell could grasp the significance all day as he received tweets of encouragement from fans. He listened intently before the game as Bennett told the story of a fan outside the building trying to secure an elusive ticket.
“It’s a huge testament to where this program was three, four, five years ago to where we’ve gotten now,” Mitchell said. “For me and Joe to be part of that first [Bennett] class, this is huge for us.”
The challenge for UVa now is to package all that they displayed here. The intensity, the passion, the desire. The Cavaliers’ home-road disparity is well-documented and fully acknowledged by the players.
“We’ve kind of been talking all week about how tough Boston College is,” said Mitchell, whose team travels to face the Eagles on Sunday in the first of back-to-back road games. “Maryland beat Duke and then went to Boston College and lost. It’s just a weird place to play. You’ve got like a hockey atmosphere. It’s cold. It’s tough to bring that energy.
“I feel like now that we expect it, we can bring our own energy and bottle this up.”
UVa fans hope so. After a night they won’t soon forget, there remains much noise to be made.
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