March 8, 2018
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — In the University of Virginia’s spacious locker room at Barclays Center, sophomore guard Ty Jerome did not have a box score in front of him Thursday as he fielded questions from media members.
He didn’t need one. The sophomore guard from nearby New Rochelle knew what he’d witnessed in the ACC men’s basketball tournament’s first quarterfinal.
“We were able to get stops,” Jerome said, “and when we get stops and we’re hitting shots, we look pretty good.”
The nation’s top-ranked team, UVA (29-2) looked better than good for most of its game with Louisville (20-13). Top-seeded Virginia led for the final 31 minutes and 53 seconds in a 75-58 victory over the ninth-seeded Cardinals.
“Basketball’s a game of runs,” Jerome said. “A team like that, they’re a good team, they’re going to make runs, but it’s tough playing from behind. We were able to stay poised and answer when we needed to.”
Five players scored in double figures for Virginia, which shot 52.5 percent from the floor. At the other end, the Cards hit only 36.7 percent of their field-goal attempts against the Cavaliers’ trademark Pack Line defense.
UVA outrebounded Louisville 34-24. Ten of the Wahoos’ boards came at the offensive end, and they turned them into 16 second-chance points. Not surprisingly, then, the third game in five weeks between these teams ended the way the first two had: with Virginia on top.
“We were hoping [the] third time was a charm against these guys, but it obviously wasn’t the case,” said David Padgett, Louisville’s interim head coach. “There’s a reason why they’re No. 1 in the country, and it was evident tonight. I said it all year long, I think their offense is very underrated. As good as their defense is, I think their offense is very underrated, and they shot the ball well tonight.”
A victory Thursday would have, in all likelihood, locked up an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for the Cardinals. Now they’ll have to sweat out Selection Sunday.
“It’s not up to us, but we without a doubt earned it,” Padgett said. “And you can’t possibly sit here and tell me that we’re not one of the best 68 teams in the country. Anybody who’s seen us play, anybody who watched our game against the No. 1 team in the country a week ago, knows that we are one of the best 68 teams in the country.”
The win sends Virginia, which is likely to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, to the ACC semifinals for the fourth time in the past five seasons. At 7 p.m. Friday, UVA will meet No. 4 seed Clemson, which ousted 12th-seeded Boston College 90-82 in the second quarterfinal Thursday.
The Tigers (23-8), who advanced to the ACC semifinals for the first time since 2011, will be looking to avenge their regular-season loss to UVA. At John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia crushed Clemson 61-36 on Jan. 23.
Sophomore guard Kyle Guy, who scored 12 points against the Tigers, had a game-high 19 against Louisville on Thursday in a performance that cheered the hearts of Virginia fans everywhere.
Five days earlier, in the first half of UVA’s regular-season finale at JPJ, Guy had sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. A first-team All-ACC selection, he wore a black brace on his knee Thursday but otherwise showed no ill effects from the injury.
Guy, who didn’t make a 3-pointer in either of the Cavaliers’ final two regular-season games, was 4 for 6 from long range against Louisville, and he closed the scoring with a breakaway dunk on which he barely cleared the rim.
“On the dunk, if I wasn’t on a [sore knee], I probably could have done something a little more special than that, right, buddy?” Guy said to Hall during the Cavaliers’ postgame press conference.
“Or been a good teammate and handed it off,” Hall answered, with a smile. “But it is what it is.”
Guy started slowly Thursday, missing his first two shots, both from inside the arc. But he buried his third attempt, a 3-pointer from the left wing, and never lost his rhythm once he found it.
“I hadn’t been shooting it well, and with the knee injury, it was really good to see one go in,” Guy said. “I think that helped spark the rest of the team.”
The 6-2 Guy also pulled down a game-high seven rebounds, and the Cavaliers’ other All-ACC guards — second-teamer Devon Hall and third-teamer Jerome — distingushed themselves as well Thursday.
Hall, a fifth-year senior, totaled 14 points, three rebounds, one steal and a game-high five assists. Jerome, who like Hall stands 6-5, finished with 11 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals.
UVA forward De’Andre Hunter, a 6-7 redshirt freshman, contributed 12 points in 20 minutes off the bench. Such performances, though, are nothing new for Hunter, the ACC’s sixth man of the year. More noteworthy was the play of fellow reserve Mamadi Diakite.
A 6-9 redshirt freshman, Diakite hit 5 of 8 shots from the floor, scored 10 points and pulled down four rebounds in 17 minutes.
“I thought he gave us a real nice lift with some nice baskets and offensive rebounds,” said head coach Tony Bennett, who also praised Diakite’s defensive work against Louisville big man Ray Spalding (16 points).
After the Cards ran off seven straight points to cut Virginia’s lead to 54-48, Diakite scored on a slick post move. Louisville answered with four straight points, but back-to-back baskets by Diakite, the second an emphatic slam off a Jerome assist, fueled an 8-0 run that put UVA in firm control of the game again.
“Mamadi’s really skilled,” Hall told reporters. “You guys know that. He’s able to get his shot off over anybody. He just has to keep working, keep working. We’re going to find him. If he’s in the post and has got somebody on his back, I’m throwing it in.”
A native of Guinea, Diakite came to the United States in January 2014 and enrolled at Blue Ridge School, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville. In the summer of 2015, he arrived at UVA and began learning the intricacies of Bennett’s system.
After a redshirt year, Diakite averaged 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in 2016-17. This season, he’s averaging 5.4 points and 2.9 rebounds, and he’s scored at least nine points in four of his past five games.
“Any time that I can contribute,” Diakite said, “I try to put it on the line and give what I can, and then live with the results.”
The quarterfinal showed how far Diakite, who’s probably the best athlete on the team, has come at UVA. It also showed he’s still learning the game. With less than three minutes remaining, Diakite picked up his dribble near midcourt and, under pressure, turned the ball over with a bad pass.
At the next stoppage of play, Hunter replaced Diakite in Virginia’s lineup.
“It’s just situations,” associate head coach Ron Sanchez said. “At every timeout, we try to give him the situations, meaning we have two timeouts or [the opponent has] the possession arrow on a jump ball, things like that.
“He’s still learning some of those things, and I think that was a great opportunity to teach him that when you get caught up towards the end of the game, possessions matter, and if we have two timeouts, you can use one. It was just an opportunity for him to learn. He was playing so well down the stretch.”
Like many players, Diakite expected to make an immediate impact in college. Instead, he’s found that progress can be incremental.
“I still have to be patient,” Diakite said. “There’s a lot of room to grow, and there’s a lot of room in what I can do. And so slowly I’ll get there.”
When he arrived at UVA, Diakite recalled, he was not “a patient person. I was trying to rush everything, and be a starter, and I did not know all the valuable stuff I’m learning now. The coaches have slowed me down and taught me that in life you’ve got to take it step by step. I think that’s the thing that has been helping me a lot.”
The Cavaliers’ coaches knew Diakite had height, length and athleticism, Sanchez said. “Just like with anyone, the question was: How much are you willing to learn? How much are you willing to study?
“I think things are coming together for him. The wires are connecting. And being in [Bennett’s] system long term has helped, because there aren’t many changes, so he’s being more reactive than thinking. And when you can just react and play, as opposed to thinking and processing, it makes a difference.”
THEY SAID IT: The win was the seventh straight over Louisville for Virginia, which leads the series 13-4. Among the postgame comments:
* Diakite on the Cavaliers’ chemistry: “We keep each other accountable and we try to push each other to beyond the llmits if we can. And we have fun with it. We really have fun as one unit together. That is, I think, the biggest thing.”
* Senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, the ACC’s defensive player of the year, on whether its No. 1 ranking is a burden for UVA: “I don’t think so. I’m going out here and playing free. I think a lot of our guys play free. If that was going to happen, I feel like it would have happened way earlier.”
* Wilkins on having faced the Cardinals for perhaps the final time this season: “They’re a really good team. They bring it every game, too. I’m cool [to not play] Louisville for a while. We’ll leave those guys alone.”
* Hall on the Cards: “Every time we’ve played them it’s been a battle, and they’ve got some really talented players in [Deng] Adel and Spalding, and [Anas] Mahmoud and [Quentin] Snider as well. We knew walking into it, it was going to be a battle, so I enjoyed it.”
* Guy on Wilkins’ knack for tipping offensive rebounds out to the team’s guards: “Yeah, Isaiah is gifted in that aspect. I think I had seven rebounds, and it wasn’t because [Louisville] couldn’t keep me off the boards. I think he was tipping it out to me.”
* Spalding on the offensive rebounding of Wilkins and Co.: “Coach let us know what we needed to do to box those guys out, but it is pretty difficult boxing out a guy like that. Kind of frustrating, as well, when you’re trying to get position and then the guy reaches over and tips it out. It’s pretty good technique.”