The Walkon’s Moment

It has become something of a tradition since the Virginia Cavaliers entered college basketball’s elite in 2013-14: The Walkon Moment.  It is a tradition that might even play out in a more meaningful way this season, a way that ties the Bennett Era even a little more tightly in with the overall history of Virginia Basketball: a walkon might see competitive action.

The Walkon Moment tradition began with Thomas Rogers in February 2014 when the Cavaliers clinched Bennett’s first ACC Regular Season Championship on Senior Day in the JPJ against Syracuse.  You most likely remember that Rogers hit that three-pointer late that made the arena explode – with the bench being the detonator.  It was one of the signature moments of that season, symbolizing Virginia’s transition to contender.

Two years later, when Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals made their first JPJ Senior Day appearance on one of Virginia’s biggest Senior Days, it was Caid Kirven’s turn.  Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte were graduating – this was Reckless Abandon Mike Tobey’s cameo – and the senior walkon stole the show with another incendiary three from the corner – this time right in front of the bench.  As with the Rogers shot, it was the team’s biggest stars going the craziest.

Then came 2018-19, and the biggest walkon story of all.  From That Kid Named Virginia to The Hundy, Grant Kersey was the most compelling story of the non-conference season.  When the season started, he wasn’t even a walkon, he was a manager.  Virginia’s depth concerns were so great early in the 2018-19 season that not only were we not sure we had enough players, we apparently didn’t even have enough walkons.  Fortunately for the Cavaliers, Kihei Clark emerged as The Mong00se, and Grant Kersey earned his name on the back of a jersey.  He entered the first game of the season with 1:21 to play, alongside Austin Katstra, with “VIRGINIA” on the back of his jersey, and had a steal. In the next game against George Washington, he scored his first points on a pair of free throws.  Kerseymania was beginning to become a thing.

Well, Kerseymania exploded into a real force at the end of the next game, a historic blowout of Balitmore County-area Coppin State, coached by former University of Maryland star Juan Dixon.  First, Katstra hit a bomb from Tyland to give Virginia 90, then a Jayden Nixon steal and layup gave the Hoos 94, and Kersey nailed a trey to give Virginia 97, the most points any Cavaliers team had scored in a Tony Bennett game.

Apparently, making history earns you a name on your jersey, because the next time Virginia came home, Grant entered the game with “Kersey” across the back of his jersey. He and Katstra again electrified the home crowd, making the end of Virginia’s blowout wins perhaps the most entertaining of any team ever.  Kersey started it on a fast break, feeding Katstra for a contested slam dunk.  Then after a pair of Kersey free throws, Austin repaid the compliment, feeding Kersey on another fast break for a layup through contact, and Grant hit the free throw for the and-1 to close the game’s scoring.

The final and biggest Walkon Moment came in the last non-conference game, on New Year’s Eve.  The starters put away mid-major challenger Marshall quickly, allowing the Green Team to do its thing.  As the game neared its last minute, the Hoos neared that 100-point barrier.  But stuck on 97, they didn’t look to be up to the task of accomplishing perhaps the least important to Bennett milestone.

That was when Grant Kersey worked his magic again.

Once again, Grant Kersey had made history.  His three-pointer at the buzzer gave Tony Bennett his first career 100-point game, in his 300th career victory.  The Virginia Walkon Tradition had been passed on.

In this coming season, it is possible that a walkon will join another Virginia Walkon Tradition: playing real minutes in a competitive game.  The Cavaliers have no backup point guard.  When Kihei Clark needs a break, either freshman Casey Morsell or new JUCO Tomas Woldetensae might have to stretch his skill set to cover the point.  Neither of those players is really a point guard.  Tony Bennett, however, has two other real point guards on his roster: returning Green Team point guard Jayden Nixon, and incoming freshman Chase Coleman, a 5-9 dynamo from Norfolk’s Maury High School.  Depending on how players develop and tactical considerations, it is conceivable that Coach Bennett could decide to use one of those two players as Kihei’s backup from time to time.  If that were to happen, they would join a select few Virginia walkons who played important roles.

Kenton Edelin was a 6-7 walkon center in Ralph Sampson’s last two seasons, and after Ralph graduated, Edelin became a key player on the team that went to the Final Four. He had perhaps the biggest Walkon Moment in Virginia Basketball history when he stole the ball from Dan Dakich and gave Virginia the lead and initiative late in the 1984 East Regional Final that sent Virginia to the Final Four:

When Jeff Jones’s program imploded and Pete Gillen took over, Virginia had so few scholarship players that Gillen had to host an open tryout just to fill out a roster.  Thus was the legend of Josh Hare born.  Hare was a 6-2 point guard who actually was a quality backup and even started some games, until his career was ended by a broken ankle.  On that same 1998-99 team, Raleigh Harbour became the most famous bartender in Virginia Basketball history, immortalized in a classic Gillen quip, “He’s a fifth-year bartender.  We might not win the game, but we’ll win the parties afterward.”

In the transition from Gillen to Dave Leitao, Virginia again found itself with a shortage of quality players, and walkon Billy Campbell played in 26 of Virginia’s 30 games and actually started 2 games as a senior in Leitao’s first year.

The Cavaliers again had to turn to a walkon during a coaching transition, as former walkon Will Sherrill not only earned a scholarship and started 20 games in Bennett’s first two seasons, but became a team captain.  Sherrill “helped lay the foundation for what would become a college basketball powerhouse.”

Finally, there was Doug Browman, who spent some time in the rotation in 2012-13 because of Jontel Evans’ injury, Malcolm Brogdon’s redshirt and the suspension of Teven Jones, contributing to a win over Wofford and earning a scholarship for his efforts.

Whatever Virginia’s walkons might do in game action this season, they will be an important part of the team, and Bennett and his scholarship players will squander no opportunity to show their appreciation for the hard work they do preparing the players in practice.