By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the game wore on, it dawned on fans at John Paul Jones Arena that they were witnessing something special, and their cheers grew louder, their yells of “Muuuuuuu!” more prolonged, every time No. 2 made another basket.
For the longest time, it seemed UVa’s Mustapha Farrakhan would never miss Tuesday night. His first 11 shots from the floor dropped through the net. Eight of those attempts were from beyond the 3-point arc. As the Voice of the Cavaliers, Dave Koehn, might say: Are you kidding me?
“What was it, his birthday or something?” Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry asked after Farrakhan’s tour de force in Virginia’s 84-63 win.
When Farrakhan’s flirtation with perfection finally ended — on his 12th and final shot, a 3-point attempt that rimmed out with 5:48 left — the 6-4 senior ran back down the court, a slight smile on his face, as the crowd again roared its appreciation for his remarkable display of marksmanship.
“The rim seemed so big to him,” teammate Jontel Evans said.
Farrakhan finished with 31 points, eight more than his previous career high. He hit eight treys in a high school game once, he said, but until Tuesday night the grandson of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan never had made more than four 3-pointers as a Cavalier.
With one more trey, Farrakhan would have tied the school record held by former great Curtis Staples, who twice made nine 3-pointers in a game. This from a player who, in his previous three games, had shot 1 for 16 from 3-point range.
“That was a nice zone I was in,” Farrakhan said. “The basketball rim felt like a hula hoop out there today.”
He wasn’t the only one who torched Howard in the Cavaliers’ final non-conference game. Against a zone defense that offered little resistance, UVa shot 66.7 percent from the floor and 64 percent from long range.
In its previous three games, Virginia (10-5) had shot a combined 11 for 63 from beyond the arc. UVa was 16 for 25 against the Bison (2-11).
“I think it’s obviously a really good confidence-booster going into ACC play, and hopefully we can continue it, especially now that we got North Carolina at home,” freshman swingman Joe Harris said.
On virtually any other night, fans would have left JPJ buzzing about the sweet stroke of Harris, who missed only one of his six 3-point attempts. But Farrakhan ensured there was nothing ordinary about this game.
He was 6 for 6 from the floor at halftime. He barely cooled off after the break.
“First, let’s give credit to a lefty when credit is due,” UVa coach Tony Bennett, himself a left-handed shooter of some renown, said with a smile.
“He really was rolling and just had great rhythm. You know that feeling when the rim looks that big. It was nice to see, and certainly helped us out. Everybody shot it so well, as did [the Bison]. Which was a concern early in the game.”
Indeed. Howard came in shooting 35.1 percent from the floor and 27.5 from 3-point range, but Nickelberry’s team finished the first half well above 50 percent in both categories.
It didn’t help the Cavaliers that their incredible shrinking frontcourt got even smaller. Already missing 6-8 forward Mike Scott (left ankle), UVa lost another starter, Will Sherrill, when the 6-9 forward got kicked in his right shin less than four minutes into the game, a blow that sent pain shooting through his leg.
Sherrill fractured his right fibula Nov. 29 at Minnesota, and the bone hasn’t fully healed. Sherrill could have returned to the game Tuesday night, but Bennett kept him on the bench as a precaution.
“And hopefully that thing will start healing, because he’s not moving so good,” Bennett said.
With Scott and Sherrill out, Bennett had three healthy big men: 7-0 junior Assane Sene and 6-8 freshmen Akil Mitchell and Will Regan. (Another post player, 6-9 freshman James Johnson, is redshirting.)
Sene hit all four of his field-goal attempts, plus his only free throw, for a career-best 9 points, and he also grabbed a game-high 5 rebounds. For much of the game, though, the Cavaliers’ center was Mitchell, who’d been a perimeter player at Charlotte Christian School.
“If it keeps me on the floor, I’m fine with it,” said Mitchell, who totaled 4 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in 26 minutes.
He smiled. “I never thought I’d come into college and play center and start the second half at the 5, but if it works, I’ll do it.”
With Scott sidelined indefinitely, Mitchell’s role figures to keep growing.
“He has a chance,” Bennett said. “I told him, ‘You start by being as good of a defender as you can and rebound like crazy and keep developing your offense.’ I think it’s nice to see him having some good games. He did a good job against Oregon and LSU in the same way, and then tonight, I thought he was very important. He brings a degree of athleticism that’s needed on our frontline, especially right now without Mike.”
Of the Cavaliers who have attempted more than one 3-pointer this season, Sherrill (14 for 27) has hit the highest percentage. His absence for most of Tuesday night’s game — Sherrill didn’t attempt a 3-pointer — made Virginia’s marksmanship that much more impressive.
Setting up many of the Wahoos’ treys was Evans. The sophomore point guard finished with a career-high 10 assists, the most by a ‘Hoo since Sean Singletary had 10 against ODU on March 24, 2008.
Evans “was just serving and feeding, and that was impressive to see,” Bennett said.
During some games, Evans keeps track of his assists in his head. Against Howard, he said, his teammates were hitting so many shots that “I really lost count.”
During one stretch in the first half, UVa made nine straight 3-point attempts. In addition to Farrakhan and Harris, junior guard Sammy Zeglinski had two treys and freshman guard KT Harrell one 3-pointer for the ‘Hoos.
“It’d kind of be nice, if we’re really cold, if maybe one guy would be hot,” Bennett said. “They all decided to come tonight, which was OK. Maybe they’re a group, and they’re unified. When they’re cold, they’re cold and when they’re hot, they’re hot. Hopefully we can change that.”
UVa hosts North Carolina (10-4) at noon Saturday in an ACC game that is expected to sell out. That will be the Tar Heels’ conference opener. Virginia won 57-54 at Virginia Tech on Dec. 5.
“It’s great that we can get a game where we shoot the ball really well heading into ACC play,” Sherrill said, “because we’re going to need that confidence.”