By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As old school as he may be in his coaching philosophy, Tony Bennett readily acknowledged the impact of the thunderous dunk Mustapha Farrakhan threw down Wednesday night.
The slam over N.C. State guard Javier Gonzalez electrified the crowd at John Paul Jones Arena, energized Farrakhan’s teammates and, after the 6-4 junior added the free throw to complete the three-point play, extended UVa’s lead to 46-36 with 6:57 to play.
A “terrific dunk,” Bennett called it, and he’ll happily take such plays from Farrakhan in every game. Still, what thrilled the Cavaliers’ first-year coach most was his players’ defensive intensity after intermission.
N.C. State missed 17 of 24 shots from the floor and scored only 19 points in the second half, and the Wahoos rallied for a 59-47 victory that moved them into a tie with Duke for first place in the ACC.
Not since a 55-46 victory over the Wolfpack on Feb. 19, 1997, had Virginia allowed so few points in an ACC game.
At halftime Wednesday night, the ‘Hoos (5-2, 14-6) trailed 28-25. State was shooting 45.8 percent from the floor, and its big men, Tracy Smith and Richard Howell, were dominating in the paint. Bennett challenged his players to ratchet up their defensive effort.
“I said, ‘That’s not who we are, who we have to be,'” Bennett said. “And they worked a lot harder, they were more together defensively. I thought with some guys being a little cold, that second half defensively won it for us, and I like to see that. That was good how much they battled.”
Bennett’s players also talked a lot about defense afterward. Topic No. 1, however, might have been Farrakhan’s vicious slam. After a Wolfpack turnover, he came up with the ball in the open court and dribbled straight for the basket. Gonzalez, who stands 6-0, unwisely challenged Farrakhan.
“I just had in my mind I was going to make an aggressive play at the rim,” Farrakhan said. “I knew I had the jumping ability to do it, so I just wanted to try to make a real aggressive play at the rim.”
Farrakhan is a lefty, but he likes to jump off one leg — his left — and dunk with his right hand. He did so with authority Wednesday, drawing a foul from Gonzalez and waking a crowd that had seen little from the ‘Hoos offensively to that point. Farrakhan’s teammates were just as excited.
“That was probably the greatest dunk I’ve ever seen in person,” UVa center Jerome Meyinsse said.
Virginia guard Calvin Baker said: “His dunk was crazy. I walked up to him and showed him the goose bumps on my arms … I would give [the dunk] a 10. He actually did that to me over the summer. Maybe that was why I had goose bumps. I guess it gave me a flashback.”
Sylven Landesberg wrapped Farrakhan in a bear hug after the play.
“I told him he better TiVo SportsCenter tonight,” Landesberg said afterward.
Sure enough, ESPN rated Farrakhan’s dunk the best of Wednesday’s top plays. His other contributions were less dramatic but no less important. In 21 minutes off the bench, Farrakhan played rugged defense, finished with 11 points and rediscovered his outside touch.
He came in having made only 1 of his previous 8 attempts from beyond the arc, but Farrakhan was 2 for 3 on 3-pointers against the Wolfpack (2-6, 14-9).
The miss came on his first attempt from long range, but Farrakhan remained patient.
“I thought he played within himself, and then, like I said, the looks he got, he took,” Bennett said. “And he worked hard on his shot these last two days, really hard, and it’s good to see him make that, and I thought he slid his feet really well. And he’s complete when he can do that. Gives us a nice weapon.”
In 2008-09, their fourth and final season under Dave Leitao, the Cavaliers won four ACC games. With nine to play, they’ve already exceeded that total after sweeping its regular-season series with N.C. State. And UVa will head into its Saturday matinee at JPJ against Wake Forest (5-3, 15-5) at or near the top of the ACC standings.
That’s heady stuff for a team that media members who cover the ACC picked to finish 11th in the 12-team league.
“I just want to say thank you [to voters] for giving us a lot of motivation,” Landesberg said with a huge smile. “I still have the preseason poll posted up on my wall, and I look at it every day.”
Had Bennett been told before the season that come Feb. 4 his team would be tied for first in the ACC, “I would have taken it, that’s for sure. I would have said, ‘That sounds good to me.’
“It’s good. It’s a good place to be in, but by no means does that mean we’ve arrived. I just want them to keep improving. And I thought they won in a way today that they haven’t in the second half.
“It was more with our defense, with some of our key guys not shooting it well.”
For the first time this season, Landesberg (7 points) failed to score in double figures. He was 2 for 10 from the floor. Sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski was 3 for 12. Several Cavaliers shot well, most notably Mike Scott (15 points), Farrakhan and Meyinsse (10 points), but overall this was not an offensive clinic from the home team.
The ‘Hoos shot 40.7 percent from the floor.
“It’s exciting when you don’t play your best game and you still win by double digits,” Zeglinski said. “Defensively, holding them under 50 points is big time in this conference.”
State made a concerted effort to limit Landesberg’s scoring, and it succeeded. But the 6-6 sophomore punished the Pack in other ways. He finished with a career-best 9 assists, went 3 for 3 from the line and grabbed 6 rebounds.
His players defended Landesberg well, “but he still made the right plays,” State coach Sidney Lowe said. “What makes him so tough is that he is big and strong and can see over the defense. He’s a very good basketball player. There aren’t many teams in the country that have a player that can control the game in so many different ways. If you take away his scoring, he’s going to do something creative for other people.”
UVa lost the lead with 14:08 left in the first half, when a three-point play put State up 10-7. The Cavaliers didn’t regain it until the 14:15 mark of the second half, when Landesberg, after a wild succession of missed shots by both teams, passed to Zeglinski, who buried a jumper in transition to make it 33-32.
The Pack had been stuck on 32 points since the 16:55 mark, and the scoreboard clock showed 9:37 when Lowe’s team finally scored again.
“The first half we weren’t great, we were a little lethargic,” Zeglinski said. “But the second half, after Coach got after us a little bit at halftime, we responded, and it was pretty gratifying to be able to come out like that.”
Bennett played for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay. One of Dick Bennett’s favorite sayings has stayed with his son.
“When you whip a donkey, it kicks. When you kick a thoroughbred, it responds,” Tony Bennett said.
“I’m not saying we’re thoroughbreds by any means, but I’m just saying [the players] responded when they were challenged, and that was what we needed. I told them I was proud of them for that. But just because we did it for a second half doesn’t mean it’s going to show up automatically. That’s something you always have to understand as a defensive team.”