CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Three consecutive impressive victories, including a road win at Maryland, have Virginia third in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings and playing its way into the NCAA tournament discussion.
The Cavaliers’ next two games, though, are where they have to show they really belong.
Virginia (18-6, 8-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) plays at North Carolina on Saturday, and travels to No. 3 Miami on Tuesday to face the league’s best team. The Hurricanes (19-3, 10-0) are the only team from the six power conferences still unbeaten in conference play. The Hurricanes have beaten No. 2 Duke by 27 and UNC by 26.
But first up, it’s the Tar Heels (16-7, 6-4), who first play at Duke on Wednesday night. Virginia won the first meeting 61-52 at home Jan. 6.
Despite their healthy position in the ACC, and a victory at No. 20 Wisconsin early in the season, the Cavaliers are viewed by most as a bubble team, or as one of the first ones out of the NCAA field, because they played a soft nonconference slate, and lost early to George Mason (14-10), Delaware (13-12) and Old Dominion (3-22), all of the Colonial Athletic Association in what is a down season for the league.
Virginia’s only loss in its last eight games also was bad. It fell apart Feb. 3 at Georgia Tech (13-9), blowing a second-half lead by going more than nine minutes without a field goal in a 66-60 loss.
It was the kind of setback they know they can ill afford.
“We kind of sat down after the Georgia Tech game and we knew that we have to put a run together to have a chance,” forward Akil Mitchell said after the Cavaliers beat Virginia Tech 73-55 on Tuesday night. “That’s the last we really talked about it. We knew that we could do it and now it’s just a matter of putting the games together, taking it one game at a time and facing every opponent like it’s our last.”
Virginia’s 8-3 mark in the ACC is its best since 2006-07, and its 14-game home winning streak is its longest since a 14-game streak in 2001. The Cavaliers’ 80-69 victory at Maryland on Sunday was just their second in five tries in the ACC this season, but Mitchell hopes his young teammates are learning on the fly.
“We need to take that intensity on the road,” he said. “We need to make sure we keep moving the ball and set our defense. We need to bring that extra intensity and that extra energy.”
Mitchell is Virginia’s No. 2 scorer, averaging 12.8 points, and the Cavaliers would do well to make sure scoring leader Joe Harris (16.3 ppg) continues his brilliance of his past three games.
Harris had a career-high 26 against the Hokies, and matched his career best by making five 3-pointers. In his past three games, he has made 21 of 30 shots, and 10 of 15 from 3-point range, in becoming the first Virginia player since Sylven Landesberg to score 20 in three consecutive games.
“Offensively I think we are doing a good job of giving up good shots for great shots,” Harris said.
The 6-foot-6 junior leads the ACC in 3-point shooting, making 48.4 percent.
Point guard Jontel Evans thinks the best is yet to come from Harris.
“Joe is the best shooter on the team. I’ve seen Joe shoot the ball and be aggressive, but I’ve never seen him be aggressive like he was tonight,” Evans said after the victory over the Hokies, a game that Harris started with three 3-pointers in a span of 1:43 to set the tone for the rest of the night.
“It was just in his eyes. You could see his killer mindset and that he wanted to get the team going on offense. That’s what he did,” he said. “Getting those first three 3s just got us off on a great start.”
The Cavaliers hope it continues when the road gets more difficult in the week ahead.