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Jan. 6, 2016

For Virginia basketball fans, there is a one-week Christmas break in the schedule. For the players, the window is much smaller, as the team reported back for practice the afternoon of December 26 to prepare for the post-holiday Cavalier Classic Tournament. For Mikayla Venson, however, it is not the quantity but the quality that matters.

“My dad picked me up right when we got back from Ohio State, he was there waiting for me when the bus pulled in to JPJ at like one in the morning, and we went straight home,” Venson said. “A lot of people aren’t able to go home and see their families during the holidays, so I was blessed to be able to sit down with my family, including my aunt and cousins, and have a great meal. My dad made ham, string beans, collard greens and my mom made her secret-recipe corn pudding. The holidays are all about seeing family and what comes from the heart. It was a very fun time.”

Though there were plenty of packages from Santa waiting for Venson under the Christmas tree, these special family moments were her favorite holiday gifts.

“I like presents, but I think the biggest present was being able to go home and see my family, especially my brother Michael,” Venson said. “We are really close. He is at all of my games, but I was so happy to be able to just sit down and chat with him for a long time. That was the best present, being able to see everyone since the basketball schedule is so hectic.”

Another Venson family tradition is watching all five of the NBA games on Christmas Day.

“I love the NBA,” Venson said with a huge grin. “I got to watch Chris Paul [L.A. Clippers], my favorite player. I really like how he controls both the offensive and the defensive side of the floor. He brings a lot of fire to his teammates. He is very passionate about the game. He is one of the most passionate people I have ever seen play. He is kind of small to be playing in the NBA, but he is still an impact player.”

As soon as Venson finishes declaring Paul her “favorite player”, she immediately interrupts herself with a clarification. Paul is her favorite “current player”.

“I like old-school NBA players,” Venson clarified. “My favorite all-time player is [former Denver Nugget point guard] Chris Jackson [Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf]. He was a really good shooter. He was able to set his teammates up for good shots. He really knew how to control the game. I love watching clips of him when I was younger and figuring out his game.”

Jackson, who retired from the NBA when Venson was five years old, isn’t the only “old-school” basketball player that she took inspiration from. One of the biggest icons of her youth was someone whose collegiate career ended 10 years before she was born and whose NBA career ended before it even began.

“My dad was super-close with Len Bias, knew him for a long time, was able to work out with him and was really hurt when he heard the news of his passing,” Venson said of the legendary two-time ACC Player of the Year from Maryland who passed away days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics with the second-overall pick in 1986. “My dad told me stories about Len Bias, like how his work ethic was unlike anyone else’s and he was one of the hardest workers on and off the court. He was one of the most passionate people to ever play the game. He never gave up on a possession. My dad has a lot of film on him that we would watch together and dissect. We would watch film almost every day on him. He was a great jump-shooter, which I loved about him.”

Venson has quite a jump-shot of her own. The second year guard has been ranked in the top-10 in the ACC in scoring this season, leading the Cavaliers in points per game. Venson has been able to use her discerning eye and basketball IQ built up over years of studying the likes of Paul, Jackson and Bias to analyze what she sees on the court in front of her.

“With one year under my belt, this year I am better at being able to dissect defenses when we are on offense,” Venson said. “I’ve worked hard on limiting my turnovers, getting good shots and finding my teammates.”

Another difference this season is head coach Joanne Boyle’s emphasis on the press.

“I love the press,” Venson said. “I think it turns teams over and makes them get really hectic. Causing those turnovers can really amp you up as a team and get you rolling. We have a lot more length this year, which really helps us. What we try to do with that is have either [sophomore guard] Aliyah [Huland El] or [freshman forward] Moné [Jones] pick up full court and cause a turnover with their length. The real goal is to make the other team play fast.”

Venson and the Cavaliers had some good success during the non-conference portion of the schedule before heading into a tough ACC slate.

“Our non-conference schedule has really helped us prepare because we have played a lot of different styles of teams,” Venson said. “Middle Tennessee was very intense. Ohio State had a lot of different aspects to their game. They could get to the rim, were great shooters while also doing a good job of sharing the ball. The non-conference games also helped us find some of the weaknesses in our game, like rebounding, so I think that is going to help us against Miami.”

“We are super-amped to be playing the Hurricanes after losing to them last year in the ACC Tournament. We are really looking forward to taking on Notre Dame again too after playing them really tough last year. We are going to bring fire and know that we can play our game. Our fans are going to be excited, and that will amp us up even more. We love the energy they bring and really feed off of that. We are so excited to being playing them here.”

Hopefully, there are still a couple of more presents for Santa to bring Venson and her families, both the one she spent Christmas with and the one here in JPJ, as the Cavaliers open ACC play against two ranked opponents.

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