CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Talking heads have debated all week whether Saturday's game is a "must win" for Virginia.
The fact that it's a debate is enough to indicate that the Cavaliers could still be OK if they don't beat Maryland. A victory, however, would help ease the tension of the season's final weeks.
The No. 22 Cavaliers are 6-5 in ACC games entering Saturday, the first of five remaining contests. Tourney aspirations often require a .500 mark in league play, and the competition only gets tougher from here, with Florida State and North Carolina remaining on the schedule.
After losing two in a row for the first time this season, the Wahoos are hoping for a bounce-back game against the Terrapins and a victory that could come down to a player not known for scoring.
Guard Jontel Evans earned a spot in the starting rotation this season because of his defense, but circumstances have forced him into a leading role on the other end of the court.
Sammy Zeglinski, the usually reliable 3-point shooter, is shooting 24 percent from behind the arc in league play. Joe Harris, who stepped up in Zeglinski's place, has limited effectiveness as he continues to recover from a broken hand.
That leaves Evans, who isn't a 3-point shooter but has learned to effectively drive the lane for layups.
"I'm just taking what the defense gives me and being smart about it," he said. "I feel like the way they're playing me is giving me opportunities to score, and me being patient has made my offense a little better."
He said that when he drives he'll take a shot only if he's open, otherwise he's looking for a pass. It's a smart strategy for a player who measures just 5-foot-11 but is attacking the game's tallest players.
"Trying to finish over big guys is tough," he said. "I've just got to find other ways ... be creative to get the shot off or make the easy play and pass."
After Evans had a career-high 17 points against Clemson, coach Tony Bennett joked that "we're always looking for that third scorer. Well, we found Jontel, but we didn't have the second scorer."
He was referring to Harris, who is working to adjust to a brace on his left hand.
The injury is significant as it effectively rules out a 3-point offense.
"Without Joe, we don't have as much of a threat there," Bennett said. "Sammy is struggling to shoot it, and Jontel is not a 3-ball shooter. Malcolm [Brogdon] is doing some good things as a freshman, but that's not right now one of his strengths. It's a hard lineup, and it really condenses things."
That's the backdrop for some of the most critical games of the season. It's an unenviable place to be, but the Wahoos still have Mike Scott, who continues to make his case for ACC player of the year.
Defensive attention on him will only increase. It's going to be up to the rest of the lineup to deliver the wins when they're needed most.
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