By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They followed the Senior Night script almost to the letter, Will Sherrill and Mustapha Farrakhan. Playing for the UVa men’s basketball team one final time at John Paul Jones Arena, with friends and family on hand for the occasion, second-year coach Tony Bennett’s two seniors made sure the night was memorable for all the right reasons.
Fifteen seconds in, Sherrill hit a 3-pointer to open the scoring against NC State. Sixty-seven seconds later, the 6-9 forward made another trey. The crowd roared, and Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe called a timeout.
Farrakhan took longer to make an impact Tuesday night. By game’s end, though, the 6-4 guard had 15 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and Virginia had a 69-58 ACC victory. As the final seconds ticked off, Farrakhan pumped his right fist while dribbling out the clock with his left hand, and then he and Sherrill embraced near midcourt.
The win was the third in four games for Virginia (6-9, 15-14), which closes the regular season Saturday afternoon at Maryland (7-7, 18-11).
“I told Will and Mu after the shootaround [Tuesday], that I was very proud of them,” Bennett said. “And my message to them was, as I’ve been part of Senior Nights before: ‘The way you can give back to your family is play your guts out out there. Don’t get your head in the clouds, don’t be floating around.’ I said, ‘Forget all that stuff. Enjoy your little moment, but then get locked into the game, because that’s what this team needs,’ and I thought they both did that well.”
This has not been the senior year that Sherrill, a former walk-on whom Bennett awarded a scholarship last summer, envisioned. He earned a starting job early in the season and was playing well, only to fracture his right fibula in the second half of UVa’s Nov. 29 game at Minnesota.
He returned to action a month later, his leg still aching. Sherrill’s productivity dipped, and when he finally began to regain his early-season form, he suffered another fracture of his right leg, Feb. 5 at Miami. Sherrill missed three more games, and only recently did he begin moving well again.
Sherrill was at his best against NC State (5-10, 15-14). In his first start since Jan. 19, he scored 14 points, his career high in an ACC game, and grabbed a team-high 8 rebounds. Sherrill made 4 of 5 shots from beyond the arc, and his presence allowed 6-6 freshman Joe Harris to return to small forward.
Harris finished with 19 points, the most he has scored in an ACC game, and also had 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Sherrill played a career-high 37 minutes.
“Will makes us a better team,” Bennett said. “Does he go 4 for 5 from 3 all the time? No. But he allows Joe to play a little more of a natural position on the perimeter, and [Sherrill’s] ability to stretch [the defense] opens up some lanes.”
Before the game, five UVa seniors were honored: managers Kristina Cotter, Devon Dawson and Colleen Reilly, and then Sherrill and Farrakhan. Among those with Farrakhan during the ceremony was his grandfather Louis Farrakhan, beaming with pride. It was the first time the Nation of Islam leader had seen one of his grandson’s college games in person.
“I was just happy he came and saw the atmosphere and saw where I was at for four years and was able to see me play,” Mustapha Farrakhan said. “I was very excited about that, and it was a good moment to remember.”
Virginia scored the game’s first 16 points, and it appeared the crowd of 8,930 would witness a blowout. But the Wolfpack, led by reserve point guard Javier Gonzalez (16 points), refused to fold, and UVa’s lead was only 18-17 when play stopped for a media timeout with 9:06 left in the first half.
“I blinked, and the lead was gone,” Cavaliers guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “It’s a game of runs, I guess, but they did a good job getting back in the game.”
The Wahoos closed the first half better than they had in their previous game. Boston College scored the final 10 points of the half Saturday and went on to romp 63-44 at JPJ. This time the ‘Hoos steadied themselves
Virginia led 32-28 at the break, and Zeglinski opened the second-half scoring with a 3-pointer. Assane Sene had a stickback on UVa’s next possession to make it 37-28, one of several good plays for the 7-0 junior, who finished with 7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocked shots.
The Pack never got closer than six points the rest of the way. There might have been some suspense in the final minutes, but Farrakhan’s 3-pointer with 3:22 left made it 59-50, and Virginia hit enough free throws from there to keep the Wolfpack at bay.
Bennett didn’t substitute for Sherrill or Farrakhan in the final seconds. That was fine with the seniors.
“I really tried to soak it in that last minute, when the game was kind of assured, that last possession, and just look up into the crowd and just kind of embrace the whole atmosphere and the whole experience,” Sherrill said. “This’ll definitely be a night that I remember for the rest of my life.”
Several times during the game, Farrakhan glanced up in the stands, trying to locate the suite from which his family was watching.
“I didn’t know where they were sitting,” he said. “So I was just like, ‘Where could be they?’ I just wanted to see where they were to make sure they could see the game and make sure they were enjoying themselves. I’m just happy and blessed that we came out with the win on my senior night, the last day on the floor.
“It’s big. I just wanted to leave on the floor that intensity and that passion … and show how Virginia basketball is supposed to play. Coming off that loss against Boston College, we really wanted to come out here and end it the right way.”
In 2009-10, the Cavaliers won five ACC games. They will win at least six this season, despite the major injuries sustained by two of their captains, all-ACC candidate Mike Scott (15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds) and Sherrill. Scott, a 6-8, 242-pound forward, played in only 10 games before an ankle injury ended his season.
“Actually I was thinking about this the last couple days, and I think Coach Bennett would agree,” Sherrill said. “Last year was his first year here, but it was really a transition year. I think this is the first year where he’s really kind of instilled his program, and I feel like this is really Year One of the Tony Bennett era. And I feel like through all the adversity we’ve faced this year, we’re really taking steps forward.
“It’s not always pretty. We have games like last Saturday where we lay a total egg [against BC], but I really feel like every day we’re taking steps forward. Even if we don’t have the kind of success that we maybe could have had this year, we’re definitely laying a foundation for a great program, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”