CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the short preparation time Virginia had prior to Tuesday night's game against No. 19 North Carolina State, U.Va.'s coaches kept mentioning to players the gap separating the teams wasn't that vast.
Maybe those motivational tactics weren't quite as convincing for some of U.Va.'s younger players heading into a game against the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason favorite, but it didn't take freshman forward Mike Tobey long to buy into it once he got on the floor.
Tobey's 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks off the bench helped lead U.Va. to a 58-55 victory, giving the Cavaliers sole possession of second place in the ACC and extending their home winning streak to 12 games. Joe Harris led U.Va. (15-5 overall, 5-2 ACC), which has won four consecutive games overall, with an ACC career-high 22 points.
"The coaches had been telling us all week, 'These guys are not that much better than you,'" Tobey said. "I just trusted in the coaches and went out there and played to the best of my abilities."
Both teams failed to score on a shot from the floor in the final three minutes and 54 seconds, which is when U.Va.'s Akil Mitchell hit a jumper to give the Cavaliers a 56-54 advantage. He finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
N.C. State (16-5, 5-3), which didn't score a field goal on its last five possessions, had a chance to tie it with three seconds left, but Scott Wood's 3-pointer from the right wing was partially blocked by Paul Jesperson.
Prior to Wood's final shot, U.Va.'s Jontel Evans, a Bethel High graduate, made a pair of free throws with 26.1 seconds left to put the Cavaliers up 58-55. His free throws helped him atone for missing three free throws after getting fouled while attempting a 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds remaining before halftime.
"All I was thinking about was these two (free throws) that were in front of me," Evans said. "My concentration was unbelievable. I was focused. I tuned out the crowd. … Those were probably the two biggest free throws of my whole basketball career."
N.C. State, which shot 37.7 percent from the floor, was led by forward C.J. Leslie's 20 points and 14 rebounds, but the Wolfpack wasn't at full strength. Leslie played 30 minutes, but he didn't start because he had the flu. He had seven of N.C. State's 14 turnovers.
N.C. State guard Lorenzo Brown, who entered the game leading the ACC with an average of 7.2 assists per game, went to the bench due to an ankle injury with 10:29 left in the first half and the Wolfpack leading 12-7. He didn't return to the game.
Tobey, a 6-foot-11 native of Monroe, N.Y., was physical under the basket on both ends of the floor, scoring with both hands in the lane and harassing Leslie and forward Richard Howell, who had 12 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
"He's got terrific touch," said Bennett, whose team shot 40.7 percent from the floor. "I think his length maybe bothered Howell some. … Mike is continuing to improve, and he's certainly a threat on the blocks. I love it that he had seven rebounds."
Tobey, who is a natural right-hander, has developed a shooting touch with both hands out of necessity. It's the only way he could beat his older brother, who was always good with his left hand in one-on-one games.
"He used to kill me one-and-one, so I had to work on it in order to start beating him," Tobey said. "I'm still working on that."
Tobey, who had fans chanting his name in the first half, made a statement in the first half with U.Va. trailing 17-9.
After Jesperson missed a 3-pointer, Tobey fought off Howell for the rebound and scored with a layup with 8:01 left to cut the Wolfpack lead to 17-11. Howell entered the evening as the leading rebounder in conference games this season (13.7 rebounds per ACC game).
Tobey's motivation for his big rebounding performance?
"Just wanting to be on the floor more," Tobey said.
"(Leslie and Howell are) pretty strong, but being a 7-footer definitely gives me an advantage on the defensive end."
U.Va. trailed 31-24 at halftime, and it didn't take its first lead at 38-37 until Tobey hit a jumper with 12:27 left.
Harris couldn't be guarded by T.J. Warren down the stretch, as Harris scored seven points in the last seven minutes. After being fouled by Warren on a 3-pointer with 5:08 left, Harris nailed all three free throws to put U.Va. ahead for good 52-49.
"I thought we had a good matchup for Joe with Warren on him," Bennett said. "Joe took advantage of that."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun