By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CANCUN, Mexico — This is one holiday story that might be too improbable even for Hollywood.

The protagonist is a walk-on forward, a guy who’s never scored more than three points in a college basketball game. So what does he do?

On the night before Thanksgiving, far, far from home, he scores 18 points to help his team erase a double-digit second-half deficit and win going away. He also totals 6 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and 1 blocked shot in 24 minutes — all career highs. Unbelievable?

Believe.

The walk-on in question is Will Sherrill, and the 6-9 junior from New York City turned in one of the more amazing performances in history of UVa hoops Wednesday night at the Cancun Challenge.

He came in with career highs of 3 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block and 16 minutes. He left UVa’s opponent, Cleveland State (3-3), wondering where, exactly, No. 22 came from.

“I loved his energy,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, “and I thought everybody rallied around that, and he gave the team a huge lift.”

Not that Sherrill was the only hero for UVa in its 76-65 win over Cleveland State at the Moon Palace Resort.

Sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg had a game-high 20 points and a team-high five assists. Junior forward Mike Scott contributed 15 points and 8 rebounds. Junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan scored all 11 of his points in the second half. Sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski bombed in a desperation 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to help the Wahoos (4-2) keep the Vikings at bay.

Each of those players, however, had performed similar feats in college games. Not Sherrill.

He’d gone scoreless Tuesday night in Virginia’s 57-52 loss to Stanford. Against Cleveland State, he made a trey to tie the game at 15-15, but those were his only first-half points. There was no reason to think he’d take over the game, no reason for the Vikings to pay him special attention.

But once Sherrill started scoring in the second half, with a sweetly stroked jumper at the 12:08 mark, he didn’t seem to stop. He finished 7 for 9 from the floor and missed only once in five attempts from beyond the arc.

Such marksmanship from Sherrill, who has a double major (history and economics), is not uncommon in workouts.

“We know when he gets the ball and he’s wide open, you might as well run back on defense,” Landesberg said. “That’s cash. New York swag.”

In practice, Bennett said, Sherrill will “screen and separate and knock down those shots, and he’s really a team guy. He’ll do whatever it takes. He’s a heady player, and that was a good step for him tonight. When you can stretch the defense, that opens up some alleys for the other guys.”

Was Sherrill aware his points were multiplying at a furious clip?

“I had no idea,” he said. “I was just trying to focus on the next play and knock down the next shot.

“It was really easy for me, because our guys, like Sylven, and Mustapha and Sam and Mike, whenever they got to the lane, my man always helped off, and I was just able to space out and they were finding me. Just a lot of rhythm jump shots.”

UVa’s coaching staff arrived in Mexico wanting at least a split. So after the ‘Hoos lost to Stanford, the significance of the Cleveland State game increased, at least to the coaches. For about 23 minutes Wednesday night, the players put forth a lackluster effort, especially on defense, and a somber plane ride home seemed likely.

The Cavaliers allowed the Vikings to shoot 65.2 percent from the floor in the first half. Cleveland State closed with a 9-1 run and led by seven points at the break.

Two-and-a-half minutes into the second half, the Vikings led 39-29 and looked capable of scoring at will.

Suddenly, though, Virginia came to life. Its comeback began with one of Scott’s three assists, this one to Landesberg for a 3-pointer. The Vikings answered with a basket, but the Wahoos ran off six more points to pull to 41-38.

The surge continued. A 10-0 run that ended with Sherrill’s second trey put the Cavaliers up 49-46. Twice Cleveland State rallied to regain the lead before Scott put the ‘Hoos ahead for good, slamming home a miss by Landesberg to make it 56-54 with 7:57 left.

“We haven’t been really good so far this season facing adversity and overcoming it,” Sherrill said. “Coach Bennett, he challenged us [at halftime] to throw the first punch and keep fighting for the whole 20 minutes.”

Indeed, in each of the Cavaliers’ first three victories, they led throughout the second half. All of them were at John Paul Jones Arena, too. The crowd in the resort’s converted ballroom wasn’t hostile Wednesday night, but neither did it provide the ‘Hoos a huge lift when they fell behind.

“You’re going to face adversity, so you have to be able to handle that and not just crack,” Bennett said. “I think probably against South Florida and then against Stanford, we didn’t answer the challenge, and we had our chances. But that was a good sign today. I was happy for the guys.”

Cleveland State didn’t go quietly. For the game, the Vikings shot 55.3 percent from the floor, and an NBA-length trey by guard Norris Cole pulled them to 61-60 with 5:19 left.

That’s when Zeglinski intervened. On a possession that seemed destined to end in disaster, Farrakhan was trapped by two Vikings, and the ball came loose. Zeglinski picked it up and launched a long 3-pointer as the shot clock neared :00.

It dropped through.

“We needed them all, and it was nice to see that go in, because we were sort of struggling to get anything, and he just heaved it up there and said his prayers and it went in,” Bennett said.

Landesberg said: “I didn’t really realize how important it was. I was just laughing down the court. Sam’s the master of trick shots, so if you need a prayer, he’s the one to go to.”

Twice after that, Cleveland State cut its deficit to one. Each time Sherrill answered. His jumper off a Zeglinski pass made it 66-63 with 2:44 left. His 3-pointer off a Scott pass made it 69-65 with 1:53 to play and allowed the ‘Hoos to begin to exhale.

“I thought a good step was being down 10 in the second half, and the guys, they didn’t quit,” Bennett said. “They fought. Big shots were made. They came up with some 50-50 balls, hustle plays.

“I thought Sylven was very complete in his game, and Mike was real aggressive with some rebounds and post touches. And what Will, Mu and Sammy did was great, too. Will was obviously the surprise, but he stretched the defense. He got a lot of hustle plays, and I just rode those guys. I know they were tired, but they had a chemistry going, and I said, ‘We’re going to ride them to the end.’ They were on fumes, that’s for sure, but it was a nice win.”

The defensive lapses that hurt Virginia against Stanford, however, continued for much of Wednesday night’s game. Bennett knows his team must improve in that area.

“We had a few breakdowns where they got easy looks,” he said. “They also hit a couple of tough shots. I know the one that Mustapha was guarding — No. 30, I think it was — he hit an unbelievably tough shot, but I guess we got it back when Sammy made his. Call it even.”

The team landed in heavy fog at the Charlottesville airport a little after 7 a.m. Thursday, with plans to reconvene that afternoon for Thanksgiving dinner. But with their next game not until Monday night — Penn State comes to town for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge — the ‘Hoos could look forward to a little rest on this holiday.

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