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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Joe Harris needed this season to end.
Oh, he didn’t want it to end. By no means was he trying to help it end. Virginia’s junior guard played hard till the horn, even when time was short and the margin insurmountable.
But as he walked through the handshake lines at John Paul Jones Arena for the final time this season, you could almost hear Harris asking for directions to the nearest bed.
He’ll get that time to rest now, after Iowa upset the Cavaliers 75-64 on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the NIT. So concluded the most voluminous season in UVa basketball history – 35 games.
The Cavaliers won 23 of those, and Harris was a big reason they did. The first team All-ACC selection had brilliant performances in some of the team’s biggest victories – 19 points at home against North Carolina, 22 points at Maryland, that unforgettable 36-point effort in UVa’s victory over then-No. 3 Duke.
But since that Feb. 28 masterpiece, Harris has been a different player. He didn’t score more than 15 points in any game that followed. He shot 33 percent over the final seven games, including a 4-for-11 effort against the Hawkeyes.
Joe Millionaire had become an Average Joe.
“I think there’s tremendous wisdom [gained] when you struggle a little bit,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “You say, OK, what areas can I improve on? What can I work on as a team, as a coaching staff, what can we do to be better?
“Joe carried a big load all year. I think he looked worn down at the end and didn’t play his best basketball these last few games.”
Further evidence to support Bennett’s fatigue theory? Harris didn’t grab a single rebound Thursday night. That hadn’t happened all year.
Harris was reluctant to use weariness as an excuse but couldn’t deny that it might have been a factor.
“It’s a possibility,” he said. “It is a long year, and the way that we play, with the minutes that some of us are playing, it has a tendency maybe to wear on you. And just the way that we practice and stuff, it’s always tough. It challenges you mentally and physically.”
The challenges actually started in August, when the Cavaliers embarked on a five-game trip to Europe. Losses in two of the first three games of the regular season put additional pressure on Harris to help carry the Cavs back to competitiveness, and he did so by averaging better than 16 points per game the rest of the way.
But lately, he’s been just a split-second slower on his drives to the hoop. His jump shots haven’t been as pure. He could have used a few days to get away, rest up and clear his head, but that option wasn’t available – until now.
“I’ll probably take a couple of days just to relax and not do anything,” Harris said. “I think the last time we had two days off was the beginning of June or something. I don’t know; it’s been a while.”
The good news is that he shouldn’t have to be the lone scoring option so often next season. Freshmen Justin Anderson (24 points vs. Iowa) and Mike Tobey (15) both have shown exciting potential. Rising senior Akil Mitchell has proven to be a threat to notch a double-double on any night.
The future, with Harris at the center of it, looks good.
“I’m excited,” Harris said. “Just having guys like Justin and Mike gaining a lot of confidence from this tournament — our younger guys are all going to improve. I’m excited for the offseason and for next year.”
He’ll get to work preparing for it soon enough. But first, he has to put this season – and himself – to bed.
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