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No. 5 Virginia ready for emotional return to John Paul Jones Arena

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Baylor Virginia Basketball

Virginia guard Reece Beekman, right, drives to the basket against Baylor forward Jalen Bridges during the first half of last Friday’s game in Las Vegas.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The nation’s attention has largely moved on from the tragedy at the University of Virginia. Shootings in a Walmart in Chesapeake and a dance club in Colorado have grabbed the media spotlight.

But for the players on Virginia’s fifth-ranked men’s basketball team, who play at home Friday for the first time since three of the school’s football players were shot to death on Grounds by another student, this game is about those victims. This game, and the next one, and the one after that.

“This isn’t a one day, one week, type of thing,” said senior Jayden Gardner. “We’re going to remember these guys forever. I think 1, 15, 41 will live forever in our hearts.”

Those were the jersey numbers of the victims — Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry. In winning a pair of games in Las Vegas — over then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 18 Illinois — Virginia’s players said they were playing for those victims and for the community back in Charlottesville.

On Saturday, while the team was out west, John Paul Jones Arena, its home court, hosted a memorial service for the three slain football players. Thousands of people attended.

Junior guard Reece Beekman said he and many of his teammates streamed the service on their cell phone on their way to practice. He knows being on that same court to play Maryland Eastern Shore in basketball game will be emotional.

“We saw some of the tributes they had and the players that gave speeches,” said Beekman. “I know it’s going to be hard, just for the fans, families, football players. We just want to do our best to show support when we can, and continue what we’re doing the court, as well.”

On the court, Virginia has completely flipped the script from last season, when struggles in November and December helped contribute to a narrative across the ACC that the entire conference was in for a down year.

The Cavaliers are 4-0 for the first time since opening the 2019-20 season 7-0. They have back-to-back wins over ranked opponents for the first time since that same season.

Maryland Eastern Shore is 2-2 and coming off a 70-59 home win over Marist on Wednesday. This will be UVa’s second all-time meeting with the Hawks and first in over a decade. Virginia beat Maryland Eastern Shore 69-42 in 2011.

This game will be a second Virginia homecoming for Richmond native Nathaniel Pollard, a former Highland Springs High School standout who spent two years at Eastern Arizona College before transferring to Maryland Eastern Shore prior to last season.

The Hawks opened the year with an 84-65 loss at Old Dominion.

The 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward scored a career-high 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the win over Marist. Pollard had nine points and 15 rebounds in a 69-64 road loss at George Washington in Eastern Shore’s previous game.

For the season, he’s averaging 9.8 points and a team-best 7.6 rebounds an outing.

“Excited about Nate Pollard having back-to-back games where he gave us a lot of points and rebounds at the same time,” said Hawks coach Jason Crafton.

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