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College Basketball

Tony Bennett, Joe Harris reap rewards of their faith in each other

Photo: Steve Helber/AP

Joe Harris holds up his jersey before the Syracuse game that secured Virginia its first outright ACC title in 33 years.

It started with two leaps of faith.

Joe Harris, who grew up in the small central Washington town of Chelan, was the state's Mr. Basketball as a high school senior. Yet, the only high-major school that offered him a scholarship was Washington State. In the spring of 2009, just four days after Cougars coach Tony Bennett came to Chelan to watch Harris work out in an open gym, Bennett accepted an offer to become the new coach at Virginia. That left Harris to wonder: Would this man still have the same faith in him now that he had moved onto a bigger job? The answer was yes.

Bennett also had some convincing to do. Harris was extremely close to his large family. He had three sisters, and his mother was one of 10 children, and almost everyone lived nearby. Now, Bennett was asking him to leave all that behind, fly all the way across the country, and help Bennett try to rebuild a moribund program. "I told him if you come with me, it will force you to mature in a way that you wouldn't if you were at home," Bennett said. "I really challenged him. This was a defining moment where he would be forced to be on his own."

The answer was yes. "Not a lot of people believed I could play atc the highest level," Harris said. "Coach Bennett was the one who did from the beginning. I loved that, and I believed in him, too."

It took four years, replete with twists and turns, disappointments and setbacks, fits and starts and all kinds of dead ends, but their faith in each other was vindicated on Saturday. In his final home game in a Virginia uniform, Harris celebrated Senior Day by helping Virginia to a 75-56 win over then-No. 4 Syracuse. The victory gave the Cavaliers their first outright ACC regular season championship in 33 years. As Bennett walked down the sideline to shake Jim Boeheim's hand after the game ended, a tear rested on his left cheek. "For Joe to sacrifice by coming out here and become such a team guy, and then to see that get rewarded, that was pretty powerful to me," Bennett said. "I was really overwhelmed with gratefulness."

For all their optimism, neither man could have predicted such an outcome four years ago. In the fourth game of Harris' freshman season, the Cavaliers played Washington, the home state school that never recruited him, in the Maui Invitational. Virginia lost by 43 points. Harris started 25 games that season, and although the Cavs would lose 15 times and fail to reach the postseason, he displayed a knack for scoring. Harris averaged 10.4 points as a freshman, and as a sophomore he scored 11.3 points per game for a team that went 22-10 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Last year, Harris became a breakout star, averaging 16.3 points per game on 47 percent shooting including a career-high 36 points in a home win over Duke in February. When the season ended, the ACC's media and coaches voted him first team all-conference, even though the Cavs barely missed out on the NCAA tournament and ended up in the NIT.

Harris was named to the league's preseason all-conference team last fall, and some experts tapped him as the ACC's preseason player of the year. However, his senior season did not begin well. Harris struggled with his shooting, which caused the team to suffer some early setbacks: Home losses to VCU and Wisconsin, a three-point loss on the road to Green Bay (Bennett's alma mater), and most humbling of all, an 87-52 thrashing at Tennessee on Dec. 30 in which Harris needed nine shots to score seven points. The following night, Harris paid a New Years' Eve visit to Bennett's house. Over the next four hours, the two of them revisited the vision they had laid out four years ago, and tried to riddle through all the reasons it wasn't coming to pass.

Harris emerged from that conversation believing the team's biggest problem was him. "I realized I wasn't being a good enough leader," he said. "We can't match up man for man with a lot of teams we're going against. So we have to play a certain way, where we grind it out with teams and outlast them. Since we've established that mentality, we've had a tremendous amount of success."

Once the players rededicated themselves to the "pack-line" man-to-man defense that Bennett learned from his father, Dick, the results were impressive. Virginia leads the nation in fewest points allowed (54.7), and it is third in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. The bigger adjustment for Harris came on offense. His dreams of being a high-scoring, all-conference guard had to be replaced with a more modest design in which he was but a piece in a better puzzle. Those results have been impressive, too. Harris is averaging five fewer points per game than he did as a junior, but he is one of six Cavaliers who are scoring between seven and 13 points per game. "Last year, I had to be much more aggressive in the offense for us to win," Harris said. "We have a lot of different guys who can contribute now. Sometimes you have to leave your ego and pride aside and do what's best for the team."

In an era where players are less willing to forsake ego if it means being unable to impress NBA scouts, Harris' attitude is as refreshing as it is effective. Without it, his Senior Night could have turned out much differently. Harris is unsure how many friends and relatives from Chelan made it to Charlottesville for the big occasion, but he estimates it was somewhere around 50. It was quite the full circle moment. Four years ago, he left home. On Saturday, his home came to him. "It was an unbelievable feeling. I can't even describe it," Harris said on Sunday after apologizing for a hoarse voice. "It's extremely gratifying to see all the work we put in pay off like that."

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