AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Virginia coach Tony Bennett needed Joe Harris to score, and to help others score, too, so he put him at point guard. It worked.
Harris scored nine of his 15 points in the opening minutes of the second half Monday night and helped settle young Virginia down after a somewhat sloppy first half as the Cavaliers rallied to beat Fairfield 54-45 in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-off.
"Kind of my mindset going into the second half was I've got to be assertive and not only create for myself but also for my teammates," Harris said, adding that he thought the offense was "stagnant" before the intermission. The taller Cavaliers also missed several tries from in close.
"We left a couple out there on the table as far as bunnies and putbacks that are hard to fathom, but it happened," Bennett said.
With Virginia's two point guards _ senior captain Jontel Evans and sophomore Malcolm Brogdon _ watching from the bench while recovering from surgeries, Bennett said putting Harris in charge of the ball had several purposes.
"He was a marked man," Bennett said of the team's best 3-point shooter. "He has to be assertive. He has to be aggressive."
Akil Mitchell added 12 points and freshman Evan Nolte 11 for the Cavaliers (1- 1), who will play in the second round Tuesday night with the winner advancing to New York.
"You're playing now for a chance to play at Madison Square Garden, which is no small thing," Bennett said.
Josip Mikulic scored 13 points and Derek Needham and Desmond Wade had 10 each for Fairfield (1-1). The Stags scored only 15 points in the second half, making just 5 of 24 shots. In the first half, they were 12 for 23 with six 3-pointers, including three in as many tries by the 7-foot Mikulic.
"We had a lot of belief that we could come in and win," Stags coach Sydney Johnson said. "They made some adjustments and maybe we relaxed a little bit too much."
Harris' 15-foot jumper with 17 minutes left that gave the Cavaliers their first lead at 33-32. Virginia stretched its margin to 42-37 as the Stags went 5 1/2 minutes without a point, but Wade made a pair of free throws for Fairfield and Colin Nickerson followed several Cavaliers' misses with a layup at the other end, making it a one-point game with 8:45 to go. Fairfield added just two field goals the rest of the way.
"Forty-five is not a number that we're comfortable with," Johnson said.
Virginia was playing its second game without Evans and Brogdon. Bennett used several players at the point, including freshman Taylor Barnette and Justin Anderson, but Harris was in charge in the closing moments.
He fed Mitchell for a basket with 4:08 to play that gave Virginia a 51-45 lead, and after neither team scored for more than a minute, Harris' 10-foot jumper stretched the lead to eight and the Cavaliers were never challenged again.
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