Cavaliers' Big Men Provide Big Lift
Feb. 7, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In Isaiah Wilkins’ two-plus seasons on the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, he’s started 44 games and supplied countless hustle plays, especially at the defensive end.
“He’s always been our heart and soul, our glue guy, from pretty much day one,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said.
Never before, however, had Wilkins been as statistically productive as he was Monday night, when he played a career-best 37 minutes and totaled 13 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots in No. 12 UVA’s 71-55 win over No. 4 Louisville at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I was hyped,” Wilkins said of learning after the game that he’d posted the first double-double of his UVA career.
Still, the 6-7 junior from Atlanta knows his limitations. He’s not the Cavalier with the most natural ability. That distinction, Wilkins said, probably belongs to Mamadi Diakite.
“Maybe Jay Huff,” Wilkins said. “But besides him, no, because Mamadi is a legit 6-9, he shoots the ball out of his mind, and he’s super athletic.”
Huff, a 7-0 freshman from Durham, N.C., is redshirting, so UVA fans won’t see him in action until 2017-18. Diakite, who redshirted last season, is now one of the Wahoos’ frontcourt reserves, and against Louisville he flashed his array of skills.
Diakite, who graduated from the nearby Blue Ridge School, has become a fan favorite at JPJ, and in 16 minutes he contributed six points (on 3-for-3 shooting) and blocked two shots. Two of his field goals came on crowd-pleasing dunks, the second after the Cardinals (19-5 overall, 7-4 ACC) began pressing in the second half.
That performance came two days after Virginia’s 66-62 loss to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, where Diakite finished with eight points (on 4-for-4 shooting), four rebounds and one block in 16 minutes.
“You’ve just got to keep working,” Diakite said Monday night, “because you never know what Coach is planning for everyone, so you’ve just got to stay ready.”
The Syracuse game marked the first time in nearly a month Diakite played at least 10 minutes in a game. Strep throat had kept him out of the Jan. 29 clash with Villanova in Philadelphia, and Diakite’s struggles in the Cavaliers’ Pack-Line defense had limited his role in the frontcourt rotation.
Diakite may be an accomplished shot-blocker, but his on-the-ball defense remains “a work in progress,” Bennett said.
That was apparent Monday night as Virginia (18-5, 8-3) recorded its fourth straight win over Louisville. Diakite was called for four fouls, the most of any Cavalier.
“He can slide,” Bennett said. “He’s got the quickness. He just doesn’t understand space and protecting and getting away when a guy puts [the ball] on the floor.”
The coaching staff “told me I was hugging my man up too much and that I needed to space out a little bit, like an arm length away from the person I’m guarding,” Diakite said, “so I can be able to absorb his drive.”
For the season, Diakite is averaging 4.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 12.6 minutes per game. He’s shooting 62.9 percent from the floor and is second on the team with 26 blocks. Only Wilkins (33) has more.
“It’s a learning process,” Diakite said. “I’m learning every day, and I’m really thankful for this program, the coach and everyone here.”
On a night when Bennett wanted rim protection from the Cavaliers’ big men, Wilkins, Diakite and 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jack Salt complied. Wilkins matched his career high with five rejections, Diakite had his two, and Salt blocked one shot.
“I thought in the second half those three interior guys were terrific,” Bennett after his team moved into a tie for second place in the ACC with No. 14 Florida State (20-4, 8-3).
This was not the Louisville team that Virginia defeated Dec. 28 at the KFC Yum! Center. Because of suspensions and injuries, four Cardinals missed the rematch, among them guard Quentin Snider (12.1 ppg), forward Deng Adel (11.1) and center Mangok Mathiang (7.1).
“When we’re a full strength we’re a pretty good basketball team,” head coach Rick Pitino said, but the Cardinals’ energy level dipped late in the game Monday night.
They had no such problems in the first 20 minutes. Louisville, which never led in its previous two games against UVA, was ahead 32-25 with 1:25 left in the first half. But the Cavaliers closed the half on a 7-2 run capped by Salt’s putback of a missed free throw by senior point guard London Perrantes.
“That was a huge play for us,” Wilkins said.
“It gave us a lot of energy,” Perrantes said. “That’s what we need from [Salt]. We need energy, we need those offensive rebounds and his blocks. Everything we get from him is huge, but that definitely gave us a little energy boost going in [to the locker room].”
Salt, who has started every game this season, struggled against Syracuse, where he had more turnovers (three) than points (one) or rebounds (one) and played only 10 minutes. He was eager to get back on the court.
“It’s good to bounce back and have a game on Monday,” said Salt, who hit both of his shots and finished with four points and six rebounds in 19 minutes against the Cards.
With the crowd of 14,623 in full voice, the `Hoos scored the first seven points of the second half to take control. Louisville, meanwhile, missed 10 of its first 11 shots from the floor. The Cavaliers could not stop 6-6 freshman V.J. King, a graduate of Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax who scored a career-high 24 points, but overall their defense was exceptional.
“I hope you guys liked it,” Bennett told reporters. “I liked it a lot. I think that’s what we have to be. We flew around, we jammed the lane … We ran good offense in the second half, too. We ran hard offense, and that made a difference too.”
Wilkins said: “I just feel like we were sluggish the first half. We didn’t have much life. We went in at halftime, we talked about it in the locker room and [said that] if we don’t come around and play with energy, we lose this game. We got it together and we rallied and we went from there.”
Bennett’s message to his players at the break?
“Fight,” he said. “[Louisville] went at you, and you’re going to have to respond. You’re going to have to answer the challenge.”
Three players scored in double figures for Virginia: Perrantes (18), Wilkins and redshirt junior guard Darius Thompson, who had 10 points, four rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes off the bench.
As freshman guard Ty Jerome’s role has grown in recent games, Thompson has seen his playing time dip. But he remains an important member of the team.
`I told him after the Syracuse game, `Your time will come. Don’t get discouraged. All of you will get a chance,’ ” Bennett said.
Against Louisville, “I [liked] Darius’ length, his ability to make some plays off the dribble and bother shots, and then he was locked in more defensively than he has been,” Bennett said. “That’s a key for us. If he’ll take care of the ball and guard and use his length and not get beat [on defense], then he gives us something.
“They all need to stay ready. That’s our team this year.”
The Cavaliers don’t play again until Sunday night, when they take on Virginia Tech (16-6, 5-5) at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg. That starts a stretch of four games in nine days for UVA, which defeated the Hokies 71-48 at JPJ on Feb. 1.
“We need rest,” said Perrantes, seated next to Salt at the postgame press conference Monday night.
“I need it for sure. I know Jack needs it. Everybody needs rest, so we’re going to take some days off, watch film, watch this past game, watch Virginia Tech, watch our last game [with the Hokies] and just get ready.”