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Barber: In Las Vegas win, Virginia's basketball team played for its football brothers

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Virginia Returns Basketball

Virginia players stand for the national anthem before Friday's game against Baylor while wearing shirts in memory of the three students left dead in a shooting last week.

LAS VEGAS — In the final minute of No. 16 Virginia’s upset of No. 5 Baylor on Friday, UVa junior center Kadin Shedrick found himself standing on the court, thinking about the three football players who had been shot to death on campus Sunday. He found himself thinking about his friend, D’Sean Perry, who was one of those victims.

That’s when Virginia’s fifth-year senior captain, Kihei Clark, walked over, leaned into Shedrick, and got him focused on the moment.

“There was a point in the game, at the end, I was getting emotional on the court,” Shedrick said. “Kihei kind of brought me back into the game.”

Being in the game at all seemed like an accomplishment for this team, part of a university community rocked by the shooting deaths Sunday aboard a charter bus that had just returned to campus from a class trip.

“We know the pain and the grief that so many are going through,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We talked about it after – you played hard, you played free. Whether you won or lost, it was OK. You honored the right things. Situations like that really do put things in perspective.”

Perry, a linebacker, and wide receivers Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr. died in that attack. Police have arrested a former football walk-on, Christopher Jones, in connection with the murders.

No. 16 UVa (3-0) canceled its game Monday night against Northern Iowa, but returned to the practice court on Tuesday and Wednesday, then flew to Las Vegas to compete in the Continental Tire Main Event. On Friday, the Cavs beat No. 5 Baylor 86-79.

In some ways, being across the country while the community grieves is an added difficulty for Virginia’s team. In other ways, Shedrick said, it’s been a blessing.

“It’s so important to try to get some normal in your life, even though this isn’t normal at all,” he said after scoring 17 points. “That felt good getting back out there Tuesday and Wednesday. But I wasn’t really focused in practice, personally. But getting here to Vegas felt significantly better. Just getting out of all the madness. Everything’s sad in Charlottesville right now. Getting to Vegas has been a nice escape from reality.”

Of course, reality was never far from the players’ minds Friday, especially late in the game when the emotional exhaustion of everything they’d been through may have factored into Baylor’s late run, turning a blowout into — at one point — a six-point game.

“Anytime something like this happens, it definitely takes a toll on everybody,” said Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio who knew Chandler when they were younger. “It might have bled into the game. Who knows?”

What Vander Plas and his teammates knew was that Friday was an opportunity to honor the shooting victims. And it wasn’t one they wanted to squander.

“We all had those patches on today. We all had those shooting shirts with the names of the guys,” he said. “We played for them.”

And, Bennett said, they played for the survivors. For families wracked with grief. For teammates and coaches stunned and heartbroken. And for a fan base and community in mourning.

“I want that coaching staff and those players to know how much we love them, are with them,” he said. “To have that performance, it’s just a game, but if it brought some momentary joy to any of those guys, thank goodness for that.”

Bennett said they’ll approach Sunday’s championship game against No. 19 Illinois the same way they approached the meeting with Baylor — together.

“Our guys prepared well, in even the midst of what’s going on,” he said. “I know we so want to be there, with all that’s going on, but we’re here. We said, ‘Let’s just go after this and try to do it the right way.’”

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