You’d name six or seven different players on the Virginia Cavaliers before you might even have a passing thought about Evan Nolte. Understandably so, since the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward doesn’t play a ton of minutes and isn’t necessarily someone Virginia runs plays for when he is in the game. But Friday night, when the Cavaliers were staring down the possibility of becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a 16-seed in Coastal Carolina in the NCAA tournament, it was Nolte who swung the game in Virginia’s favor.
Nolte, who averages just 2.5 points per game on the season, got his chance as the Cavaliers were dealing with some foul trouble midway through the second half. Senior leader Joe Harris had three fouls and post presence Akil Mitchell had picked up his third. Virginia had just taken the lead on a series of three free throws by freshman point guard London Perrantes (12 points, six assists, no turnovers), but the Cavaliers were holding a tenuous 50-47 lead over the spirited Chanticleers, who had led by as many as 10 in the first half and by five at halftime.
Most people would have rightly expected Harris, Malcolm Brogdon or perhaps Anthony Gill to be the one to carry Virginia out of the abyss. Instead it was Nolte, who spotted up for a three-pointer from the left corner and pushed the Cavaliers lead to six. But instead, it was Nolte, who in a span of just about two minutes, hit a pair of three-pointers and a two-pointer for eight quick points, giving Virginia an eight-point lead. From there, the Cavaliers took control of the game and never looked back in a 70-58 victory in the second round of the East Regional at Raleigh, N.C. Perhaps even more importantly, it saved Virginia from being a national joke for the next couple weeks.
While the victory came with no style points for Virginia, the contribution from Nolte was huge and a positive sign going forward. Defenses such as Memphis, who Virginia will play in Sunday’s third round, will always try to key on Brogdon and Harris — Virginia’s two leading scorers this season. In the ACC tournament, Gill (game-high 17 points Friday) was the one who stepped up and helped the Cavaliers to three straight wins and the championship. On Friday night, it was Nolte, who didn’t even play in five games this season, scored no points in 12 others, and hadn’t scored as many as eight in a game since he had nine in a win over Boston College on Feb. 5.
Nolte sparked Virginia to a 40-24 advantage in the second half, as the Cavaliers looked much more like the defensive team they had been all season. Coastal Carolina (21-13) shot 52 percent in the first half, almost unheard of against UVA. But the Chanticleers finished at just 43 percent, while UVA shot 53 percent. Nolte’s 3-for-4 might not look significant in terms of the numbers, but his shots couldn’t have come at a better time and saved Virginia (29-6) from what would have been the most embarrassing loss in NCAA tournament history.