Mustapha Farrakhan ‘s dunk over N. C. State’s Javier Gonzalez caused a previously quiet crowd to erupt.
The first three-quarters of the Virginia men’s basketball team’s game against N.C. State on Wednesday night was not a pretty affair. The pace was slow, and neither team could find an offensive rhythm as the referees called nearly every little push here or hold there. One fan posted on the In-Game Chat board, “This game is as fun as Mother’s Day at an orphanage.”
Then, at the 6:57 mark of the second half, Mustapha Farrakhan brought the house down – and nearly the rim.
Farrakhan’s dunk may not have been the most important bucket of the night. But, as the 6’4″ guard posterized N.C. State guard Javier Gonzalez with a fierce, one-handed throw-down – plus the foul – the modest crowd of 10,092 finally came to life. And so did the Cavaliers as they went on to pull away to a 59-47 victory.
“We didn’t feel the same energy as a team, just playing,” Farrakhan said. “I think I just gave that energy after that play, and we just started playing well in the second half.”
The Cavaliers had already led for most of the half, as they did not give up the lead after taking a 33-32 advantage with 14:14 remaining. But Farrakhan’s dunk and ensuing free throw gave the Hoos a 10-point lead – their largest of the night at the time – which expanded to 15 in the waning moments.
“That might have been the nastiest thing I have ever seen in my life,” Landesberg said. “I saw Gonzalez coming from the other side, so I’m like, ‘All right, Mu’s just going to lay it up.’ All of a sudden I see his feet start stuttering, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to get bad, I hope [Gonzalez] doesn’t jump.’ And then he made an unwise decision (laughs).”
Guard Calvin Baker did say that he had been dunked on by Farrakhan in a similar manner playing pick-up over the summer. But the junior certainly hadn’t made a play as spectacular as that before in his career.
“I’m still in shock,” forward Jerome Meyinsse said. “It better be on ESPN’s Top Ten.”
Jerome Meyinsse and the Cavaliers picked up their defense in the second half against N.C. State.
The dunk, however, overshadowed what gave Virginia the lead in the first place – a much-improved defensive performance in the second half. The Hoos allowed just six points in the first 14 minutes of the second half, with the Pack shooting a paltry 3 of 13 from the field. For the game, State’s 47 points allowed was tied for the lowest total of any ACC match-up this season. (Clemson scored 47 in a 13-point loss to Duke on Jan. 23.)
“At halftime I really challenged them hard – I said, ‘that’s not who we are or who we have to be,'” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “They worked a lot harder and were more together defensively in the second half, and I thought that with some of [our] guys being a little cold tonight, that second half defense won it for us.
“My dad used to tell our team, ‘When you whip a donkey, it kicks; when you whip a thoroughbred, it responds,'” he added. “I said [after the game], ‘You guys responded when I challenged you at halftime.'”
The second-half effort came after a mediocre first half defensively, particularly in regard to State standout Tracy Smith. The Pack shot 45.8 percent from the field in the first half, scoring 21 of their 28 points off of post entries to Smith; Smith scored nine points himself, and 12 more came as he passed out of the post after being trapped on the block. Meanwhile, as State keyed on Landesberg defensively, all of Virginia’s guards struggled to find the rim – the Hoos’ guards shot 4 of 16 in the first half as the visitors earned a 28-25 lead.
“They scored in the paint way too much,” Bennett said. “Sometimes we put our trap on and sometimes we did not, but we were indecisive. Either we came too late, or we trapped out too far on the floor. We did not have good rotations on the weak side, we had poor vision, we were just really reactive. Against good post players and good teams, you cannot be reactive. You have to anticipate – we say you have to come in high and hard and close the door. Those things were really absent, and I was disappointed in that.”
Similar to North Carolina three days earlier, however, Virginia’s defense clamped down and its opponent went cold in the second half. The Cavaliers pushed Smith further from the basket and limited his touches, and the junior struggled to just 1-of-4 shooting in the second half. State also shot 1 of 7 from 3-point range and 4 of 9 from the foul line after intermission, which included two misses on the front end of 1-and-1’s.
The Hoos also made Smith work harder on the defensive end. Smith went into halftime with no fouls, but committed three personals in a span of 3:13 midway through the second half, forcing him to the bench with 13:13 remaining. Though Smith sat for just more than three minutes, the Wolfpack scored no points without their star, and the Cavaliers increased their lead from four to eight.
“I think that the difference in the ball game was the run that [Virginia] made in the second half when Tracy Smith came on the bench because of foul trouble,” State coach Sidney Lowe said. “They made a little run and we had trouble scoring even when Tracy came back in the game.”
Perhaps the most surprising part of the Cavaliers’ win was the manner of their offensive production. For the first time in conference play, Landesberg scored fewer then 18 points; he finished with just seven on 2-of-10 shooting. And, guard Sammy Zeglinski – a double-digit scorer and a 46.8 percent shooter from 3-point range coming into the evening – shot just 3 of 12 for 8 points. However, thanks to nine points each from Farrakhan and forward Mike Scott in the second half, and nice contributions from Calvin Baker and Will Sherrill off the bench, the Hoos produced enough offense to complement their second-half defensive effort.
“It just shows how good our team really is, how talented the players are,” Landesberg said. “How many other people can step up and make big contributions.”
Landesberg, however, still played a key role. With State’s defensive attention to the sophomore perhaps the most pronounced of any of Virginia’s opponents this season, Landesberg turned into a catalyst, dishing out 9 assists while committing only 2 turnovers; he came up with 6 rebounds and 1 steal as well.
In the first half, Landesberg appeared to force shots when they weren’t there with State packing the lane. He quickly realized that the openings that appeared against UNC – where he had 29 points – were not available, he said, and began to look less for his shot and more for his teammates, a sign of maturity for the sophomore.
“Last year, I don’t think I was mature enough to be able to read the defense like I can this year, and be able to make the plays that I’m able to make this year,” Landesberg said. “Last year, I would have definitely kept attacking for myself instead of trying to create a shot for my teammate. That’s just a huge difference, and last year if I had continued doing that, we probably would have lost this game. Thanks to Coach Bennett and the coaching staff, and my maturity, we were able to pull out a win.”
When asked whether he would prefer to get 18 points or nine assists, Landesberg responded, “If we get the win in that column, the ‘W’, it doesn’t matter.”
And winning, too, is a novel concept for Virginia. The Hoos’ fifth conference win gives them one more than all of last year, and puts them in a tie for first place in the ACC with Duke. In a year that Bennett said would be one of making progress, Virginia appears to be a contender.
When asked what it feels like to be in first place, Landesberg had a succinct answer.
“It’s a lot better than being in last, I can tell you that,” he said.