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Defense keys Virginia's victory

The SportsXchange

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia started slowly Monday night, but its defense came to the rescue by limiting Fairfield to just five second-half field goals, enabling Virginia to pull out a 54-45 victory in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Monday.

Virginia (1-1) advances to Tuesday night's game against the winner of Delaware and Pennsylvania, which took place later Monday night. Fairfield will take on the loser of that contest Tuesday.

Fairfield (1-1) shot 52.2 percent in the opening half but managed to make just five of its 24 shots in the second half, scoring just 15 points.

Virginia used a line-up in the second half that featured Joe Harris, Paul Jesperson and Justin Anderson on the perimeter in the second half. All three are 6-6, and Virginia coach Tony Bennett was hoping to create some issues by utilizing his team's length.

"I thought our defense was better in the second half," Bennett said. "Those [Fairfield] guards are pretty quick. They're small and they're quick. I just decided to play mostly Paul [Jesperson], Joe [Harris], and Justin [Anderson]. We used our size and tried to take advantage of that."

Virginia (1-1) was led by Harris with 15 points, 11 of which came in the second half. Junior forward Akil Mitchell had 12 points and eight rebounds, while freshman forward Evan Nolte pitched in 11 points off the bench, making four of his six shots.

Virginia struggled offensively in the first half, turning the ball over seven times. In the second half, Harris was asked to play point guard, and he instantly calmed things down for the Cavaliers. Virginia turned the ball over twice after halftime.

"Offensively in the first half, things got a little bit stagnant, and it seemed like we were having difficulty scoring," Harris said. "Kind of my mindset going into the second half was I've got to be more aggressive and assertive and not only create for myself but for my teammates."

Fairfield was led by freshman forward Josip Mikulich's 13 points and seven rebounds. Preseason All-MAAC selection Derek Needham had 10 points, while point guard Desmond Wade also had 10.

"We had a lot of belief that we could come in and win," Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. "We thought we had a chance. So, our guys were hyped up in the first half. Then, they made some adjustments, and maybe we relaxed a little bit too much, to be honest. I just thought there were some jumpers there that didn't go in, and then we didn't convert in the paint. It snowballed from there."

The Cavaliers took their first lead of the game with 17:03 to play when Harris hit a turn-around jumper in the lane to put Virginia ahead 33-32. That lead lasted all of 25 seconds as Needham hit a three-pointer on Fairfield's next possession.

Virginia took the lead for good on a Harris jumper with 15:45 to go.

Fairfield led 30-28 at halftime and never trailed in the opening half.

Mikulic led Fairfield with nine points in the first half, making all three of his three-point attempts. As a team, the Stags shot 6-of-11 from three. Needham had seven points and four assists in the opening period.

"They hit some tough shots, but they were getting offensive rebounds, getting in the lane," Bennett said. "When they were left open, they were making them. We couldn't really make them earn. Now, a team is making shots and they're contested, I'll live with it, but that hurt us on the defensive end how many open looks they got."

Virginia was held without a field goal for the first 7:42. The Cavaliers finally broke through when center Mike Tobey got a lay-up off an assist from forward Mitchell with 12:18 to go in the half.

"Offensively, we got some looks, got some bunnies and missed a few," Bennett said of the first-half performance. "We were a little panicky at times. They switched some. They were a little unconventional, and I think that threw our timing and rhythm off somewhat. We've just got to keep finding ways to get the right people shots."

The Stags led 30-24 late in the half, but Virginia closed on a quick 4-0 run in the final five seconds. Mitchell got a lay-up with five seconds to go, and Nolte stole the inbounds pass from Josip and laid it in at the buzzer to cut the deficit to two.

Notes: Virginia again played without point guard Jontel Evans and shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon. Evans and Brogdon, both projected starters, are out with foot injuries. . .The Cavaliers were also without point guard Teven Jones, who had a back injury flare up during pregame warm-ups...This is the third all-time meeting between the schools. Virginia won the first two games, the last one an 84-52 win on Feb. 13, 1991.
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