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Taine Murray ‘just works and works,’ and now he is ascending the rotation

As Virginia stumbles through a turbulent season, the industrious junior provides a glimmer of hope

Junior guard Taine Murray is a hard worker, someone who weathered protracted bouts of severely limited playing time. He is an emblem of an old generation of college basketball, the rare player who put his nose to the grindstone instead of putting his name in the transfer portal. He is, finally, a rotation player.

Murray has demonstrated his patience throughout his time on the team. But during the Jan. 3 game against Louisville, for just a moment, that patience could wait. Murray received the ball on the wing and took a couple slow, measured dribbles. Then he lowered his head and surged forward. He pushed past his defender, making his way underneath the rim and completing a layup that made the Virginia bench jump to their feet. The burst delivered two of his 12 points in 18 minutes.

“I was so happy for Taine,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “He just works and works. And he gave us a good lift and played well, and his physicality and toughness were good.”

Sophomore guard Isaac McKneely also had plenty of praise for Murray’s performance. In the interview room, a reporter asked McKneely about Murray, and McKneely hardly let the question finish before he started gushing.

“I’m so proud of Taine, man,” McKneely said. “I'm so happy for him. He works so hard. He's probably one of the hardest-working guys on our team. He's putting in extra hours after practice, before practice. He does the little things right.”

But since breaking out against Louisville, Murray’s scoring numbers have plummeted. He totaled a combined three points in blowout losses against North Carolina State and Wake Forest, both opponents rendering the Virginia offense helpless.

He did, however, play 18 minutes against the Wolfpack, the sixth-most on the team, signaling he has gained a foothold in the rotation. He provides an experienced presence to a roster with seven newcomers, and he possesses a familiarity with Virginia’s intricate systems that the freshmen and transfers lack.

Murray’s rise has been slow. Despite a flourish early in his first season, Murray faded into the background for two years, becoming a mostly forgotten fixture in a constantly shifting landscape.

Murray’s first shining moment came during just his sixth game at Virginia. Iowa had sailed into Charlottesville, towing an undefeated record, and surged out to a 21-point lead. Virginia practically begged for resuscitation.

Then came Murray. He tallied 14 points — 11 in the second half — yanking the Cavaliers out of the deficit. Virginia lost in thrilling fashion, by a solitary point. But Murray, it seemed, had arrived. 

The interview room heard words that day that sounded uncannily similar to the ones it would hear after the Louisville game two years later. Bennett praised Murray’s toughness.

“He’s tough,” Bennett said then. “Gritty. Not perfect, but plays hard and is not afraid of the moment. And he’ll have ups and downs, as all the guys will, but he’s a hard-nosed, tough young man.”

Kihei Clark, a senior guard at the time, echoed Bennett’s sentiments.

“He’s a hard worker,” Clark said. “He gets up his shots. And he works out on his own. So it just showed tonight.”

But Murray’s explosion proved anomalous. He played in only 19 of 35 games his freshman season. Things only regressed the following year, with Murray playing in only 13 of 33 games.

Confronted with the situation, many college basketball players would have transferred.  Leaving for other programs in the face of limited playing time has become the norm, as evidenced by the 1,314 players that entered the transfer portal in 2023. 

In his freshman season, Murray played alongside then-sophomore guard Carson McCorkle and then-freshman forward Igor Milicic Jr. Fans labeled the Murray-McCorkle-Milicic trio the “three M’s.” Like Murray, McCorkle and Milicic played sparingly, entering just 16 games each.

At the season’s end, two transferred. Murray stayed. He, like them, could have decamped from a program where he struggled. But the portal failed to seduce Murray. He returned for a second season, then a third. Against Louisville, fans finally witnessed what Murray’s teammates had seen all along.

“He was bound to have a game like this,” McKneely said. “And I think he’s just going to continue to help us and continue to provide that spark off the bench. So I’m really happy for Taine.”

Murray — who hails from New Zealand and enjoyed a stint with the country’s national team during a sterling high school career — said his faith in Virginia’s program and Bennett’s leadership simply never wavered. 

“I just believe in this program,” Murray said. “I trust, obviously, Coach Bennett and the coaching staff. That’s why I obviously came here. So, yeah, just tried to stay as positive as I can throughout the highs and lows.”

The lows have been low. But the highs have been fairly high. Throughout the good and the bad, Murray just keeps working.

“I bring something I feel like we can use on this team,” Murray said. “And I don’t know really in what capacity that is. I just try to play my hardest for my teammates. And hopefully we can see success.”

Success this season has been elusive. Finding it will require, as Bennett often says, a unified effort. The team must work together to improve and coalesce. As the struggles persist, patience and hard work will become even more important. 

In order to salvage what is becoming an increasingly underwhelming season, Bennett could and perhaps should turn to Murray, the player that has embodied the five pillars of Virginia basketball — Humility, Passion, Unity, Servanthood and Thankfulness — through years of toiling away at the back end of the bench.

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