By Jeff White (email@example.com)
MINNEAPOLIS — The traveling show that is the UVa men’s basketball team touched down in this city for opening night of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The game between Virginia and 15th-ranked Minnesota was not expected to be close, and by the 5:25 mark of the second half, it wasn’t. Fourteen points separated the teams.
But the Cavaliers were the ones pulling away Monday night, not the Golden Gophers. And when the final horn sounded at Williams Arena, UVa walked off the court with an immensely satisfying 87-79 victory over previously unbeaten Minnesota.
A crowd of 12,089 at the ancient gym known as The Barn, along with an ESPN2 audience, witnessed a remarkable comeback by Virginia, which trailed by 13 points less than a minute into the second half. The Wahoos (4-3) got huge contributions from freshman Joe Harris and seniors Mustapha Farrakhan and Mike Scott, as well as an unexpected boost from 7-0 junior Assane Sene.
Harris, a 6-6 swingman, scored a career-high 24 points, hitting 8 of 12 shots from the floor and 4 of 4 from the line. He also grabbed 5 rebounds, as did Farrakhan, a 6-4 guard who scored a career-high 23 points and had 4 assists.
Scott, a 6-8 power forward, totaled 17 points and 12 rebounds, his third consecutive double-double and fourth of the young season. After the Gophers pulled to 73-67 on a stickback, Scott effectively sealed the victory for UVa with a three-point play at the 1:37 mark.
Sene, whose role grew after starter Will Sherrill left with a leg injury midway through the second half, chipped in 7 points, 6 rebounds and a blocked shot in 20 minutes off the bench.
It’s not every night that a team scores 58 points in a half, or hits 10 of 13 shots from 3-point range for the game, all on the road against an unbeaten opponent. Second-year coach Tony Bennett’s team, which was picked to finish 11th in the ACC, did both Monday night. Moreover, the 87 points are the most Virginia has scored under Bennett.
That the Cavaliers distinguished themselves on a national stage can only help the program, Scott noted, “because of a lot of people watched the game. I think it gives them a different view of us now. We’re not going to just back down, lay down for anyone.”
Virginia is nearing the end of a stretch of six straight games away from John Paul Jones Arena. The first was at Stanford, the next three in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational. The ‘Hoos went 1-3 in those games, and Minnesota was heavily favored to drop them under .500 for the first time this season.
Even after making all six of its 3-point attempts in the first half, including four by Farrakhan, UVa trailed by 10 at the break. Twenty-three seconds into the second half, the Gophers stretched their lead to 42-29. But the Cavaliers never panicked.
Scott started an 8-0 run with a three-point play. Harris, who Bennett said did “some things that were very unfreshman-like,” followed with a jumper and then the third of his four treys.
Urged on by a crowd that included UVa recruit Paul Jesperson, who’s from nearby Wisconsin, and former UVa great Ralph Sampson, whose loyalties were divided, the Gophers pushed their lead back to 10. The Cavaliers kept coming. A 3-pointer by Sherrill made it 47-40. As the Gophers’ defense continued to unravel, their opponent’s shots continued to fall, and another Sherrill trey put the ‘Hoos up 49-48 with 13:22 remaining.
That was UVa’s first lead since the game’s first minute. Minnesota (6-1) went back ahead twice, at 50-49 and then 52-51, before a Harris jumper made it 53-52 and put Virginia in the lead for good with 11:08 left.
After falling awkwardly while pursuing a defensive rebound, Sherrill stayed on the court in obvious pain as UVa’s athletic trainer, Ethan Saliba, examined his right leg. The extent of the 6-9 senior’s injury wasn’t immediately clear. Helped off the court by freshmen Will Regan and Akil Mitchell, Sherrill departed at the 10:47 mark, leaving a hole in Virginia’s frontcourt.
However improbably, Sene filled it. A disappointment through the Cavaliers’ first six games, the native of Senegal went 7 for 8 from the line in the final 9:20 against Minnesota, and he had a crucial blocked shot with about 7:15 to play. Harris tracked down Sene’s rejection to gain a crucial possession for Virginia.
“Assane, he stepped up, and that was pivotal for us,” Bennett said.
Sene said: “Every time we play against a big team, a team like Minnesota where they had big guys, I’m always ready maybe two nights before the game, trying to think about what I can do to help my team to win or help my team to get rebounds and all that. Today I was just ready. I knew that Coach would give me my chance to get on the court. I was just ready to show him what I can do, especially against big guys like that.”
Trevor Mbakwe, an uber-athletic 6-8 senior forward, led Minnesota with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks. But the Gophers’ starting center, 6-11 junior Ralph Sampson III, had only 2 points and 4 rebounds in 21 minutes. His backup, 6-10 junior Colton Iverson, wasn’t much more productive, totaling 5 points and 4 rebounds in 24 minutes.
Minnesota’s starting point guard, Al Nolen, its best on-the-ball defender, missed the game with an injury, one reason perhaps that Virginia hit 53.3 percent of its field-goal attempts in the second half.
“It was a very disappointing performance by us, but I was very impressed with Virginia,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “They shot the ball extremely well. We were lacking in our defensive intensity tonight.”
Minnesota, meanwhile, shot a blistering 57.7 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes. The Gophers finished at at even 50 percent. Virginia’s defense wasn’t great, but at least it improved as the game went on. If it hadn’t, Dick Bennett might have destroyed a TV somewhere in the Twin Cities.
Tony Bennett’s father, a legendary retired coach whose teams were renowned for their rugged defense, was in town and addressed the team Sunday night, but did not attend the game.
In those remarks to the team, Harris recalled with a sheepish smile Monday night, Dick Bennett talked “about how our transition defense was just terrible.”
The elder Bennett gets wound up when he watches his son’s games in person, so he usually stays away. The younger Bennett gets frustrated himself sometimes, particularly when he sees defensive lapses.
“I just have been getting tired of [giving up] transition baskets,” Tony Bennett said. “We talk all the time about the things that will get you beat. Eliminate losing, and it starts with getting your defense set. ‘Don’t take arrows in the back’ is the phrase we use, and [the Gophers] kept getting down the floor. It’s like our guys either would forget to match up, or we had troubles, and then during that first timeout in the second half, I said, ‘We’re either going to send four back, or the second you don’t go back you’re coming out.’ We got back a little better [after that].”
Farrakhan, a team captain, led by example at both ends of the court. That had not been the case in Maui, where he lost his starting job.
In the fifth-place game against Wichita State, which rallied to beat UVa 70-58, Farrakhan played a season-low 13 minutes. He missed his only shot from the floor, didn’t get to the line, grabbed no rebounds, had no assists, and turned the ball over three times.
Five nights after one of his worst performances as a Cavalier, Farrakhan had his best. Against Minnesota, he came off the bench to make 8 of 14 shots, including 4 of 5 from long range, in a season-high 34 minutes. He ran the point when starter Jontel Evans was on the bench in the second half, made good decisions and did not turn the ball over.
“I told Mu right before the game, I said the last two practices were the best I’ve seen,” Bennett said. “He threw himself into the team. He’s so competitive, and in your last year you want to play. I think he said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do whatever it takes.’ And I saw him more vocal in our last two practices, more team-oriented than I’ve ever seen, and we need him.
“We need his athleticism, his ability to guard. I thought at times he made it harder on [Minnesota guard Blake Hoffarber on] some of the shots that he took, but then Mu certainly had his stroke going, and just really let the game come. When you shoot that well, it helps, but he let the game come, and when Mu does that he’s a very effective player. So I was happy for him, because he handled not starting, he handled not playing as much, the right way, even though he was frustrated at the time.”
After the Maui trip, Farrakhan said, he concentrated on his “approach towards the game, not focusing on one aspect of the game. Just play out there. Because when I think about one aspect of the game, defense or offense, it kind of jams me up instead of just letting it flow. I think tonight I just went out there and just took what the defense gave me and played for my teammates.”
The ‘Hoos haven’t played at JPJ since Nov. 15. Before they play at home again, the Cavaliers must travel to Blacksburg, where they open ACC play against Virginia Tech on Sunday night.
Virginia’s record in Maui was disappointing, but the trip will pay dividends, Bennett’s players said. Monday night was evidence of that.
“The Maui experience definitely helped, just going against that level of competition,” Harris said.