By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a span of 143 seconds last January, he made three 3-pointers and three free throws, a flurry that nearly lifted UVa to a stunning comeback victory over Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum.
That still ranks as Mustapha Farrakhan’s most spectacular performance in a UVa basketball uniform. His best overall performance, though, came last week against then-No. 24 Alabama-Birmingham at John Paul Jones Arena.
In Virginia’s 72-63 upset of UAB, the 6-4 junior totaled 10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots, 1 steals and no turnovers.
That’s a fine stat line, but nothing extraordinary. What made Farrakhan’s night special was his defense on Blazers star Elijah Millsap.
“He bothered him,” UVa’s first-year coach, Tony Bennett, said on his radio show Monday night.
Millsap, whose brother Paul plays for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, finished with a game-high 27 points. Only 10, however, came during a second half in which Farrakhan hounded the taller, heavier and stronger Millsap.
“That’s what I just try to do,” said Farrakhan, who’s from the Chicago area. “I try to come in and play solid defense and be opportunistic with my jump shot. Do my best to try to play the game the right way.”
UVa (7-4) hosts the University of Texas-Pan American (1-14) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at JPJ. Farrakhan, who has come off the bench in Virginia’s past three games, enters with averages of 7.3 points and 1.5 rebounds, and he has more assists (24) than turnovers (17).
During his first two seasons at UVa, the grandson of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan had 33 turnovers and only 19 assists, and his defense was not good enough to compensate for his mistakes on offense.
As a freshman, Farrakhan averaged only 6.1 minutes per game, and though the form on his jumper often looked flawless, his shots rarely fell.
Farrakhan shot 18.4 percent from the floor in 2007-08. He improved to 34.7 percent as a sophomore but again struggled with turnovers. Aside from his strong showing in UVa’s win at Georgia Tech and his 17-point outburst against the Hokies, Farrakhan produced few highlights in 2008-09.
Neither did the Cavaliers, who finished 10-18. But the coaching change that followed the season created an opportunity for Farrakhan, an excellent athlete in whom Bennett saw the potential to be a lockdown defender.
“It all started this fall when I was watching Mustapha, and Sean Singletary came out and worked out with our guys,” Bennett said Monday night. “I was so impressed with how Mu could slide and make a guy like Singletary work to get his shot.”
For much of Farrakhan’s career, the rest of his game suffered when he didn’t get untracked early on offense.
“You can’t be a guy that if your first shot doesn’t go in, you’re a mess. That doesn’t work at this level,” said Bennett, who as a point guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay became one of the top outside shooters in NCAA history.
“As a staff,” Bennett said, “we’ve challenged him to use his quickness and that mindset to be really good at trying to lock up an opposing team’s scorer.”
Farrakhan is eager to be known for more than a textbook jump shot.
“I like taking on the challenge of guarding the better offensive players,” he said on Bennett’s radio show.
First-year point guard Jontel Evans has emerged as a defensive force for the Wahoos, and Bennett is happy to see Farrakhan embracing that role, too.
“You have to have guys, whether it’s one or two, who really will take that challenge to try and guard the opponent’s best player and do it within your system,” Bennett said. “I thought Mu did a great job against Millsap in that UAB game, and we needed that.”
Farrakhan isn’t Cornel Parker yet. In UVa’s Nov. 30 loss to Penn State, for example, he couldn’t slow Talor Battle, who scored 28 points in the second half.
Still, Bennett said, Farrakhan is “a guy we’ve at times marked and said, ‘Hey, you’re our guy. You gotta get stops, and we’re going to provide as much assistance as possible.'”
Farrakhan shot well against UAB, hitting 2 of 3 attempts from beyond the arc. He felt good enough about his defense — and his team’s victory — that he could laugh afterward about the 3-pointer he missed: an airball off a perfectly executed inbounds play.
“I don’t know what happened,” Farrakhan said, smiling broadly. “It slipped right out of my hand.”