By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – At the impromptu celebration for the Final Four-bound Virginia men’s basketball team Sunday at Disharoon Park, several players addressed the jubilant crowd, some more reluctantly than others.
When the microphone came to Mamadi Diakite, his message was short and to the point:
“Go ‘Hoos!” Diakite said, to loud cheers from the fans.
A 6-9 redshirt junior from Guinea, Diakite had more to say in a meeting he requested with head coach Tony Bennett after the ACC tournament last month. Coming off an excellent regular season, Diakite a non-factor in UVA’s two games in Charlotte, N.C. – a quarterfinal win over NC State and a semifinal loss to Florida State.
He had two points, no rebounds and no blocked shots in seven minutes against the Wolfpack; three points, no rebounds and no blocks against the Seminoles.
“I can’t exactly remember the words,” Bennett said Monday, “but he said, ‘I’m ready.’ He said, ‘That wasn’t my best. I wasn’t quite where I needed to be or right in that ACC Tournament. I desperately want to do anything, absolutely anything I can to make this team advance.’
“In his words, it wasn’t like ‘I’m back,’ but it was more like ‘I’m ready and I understand that I wasn’t what I was in other games.’ So, again, it was an interesting conversation.”
In the NCAA tournament, Diakite has backed up those words with stellar play. He contributed 16 points and nine rebounds in a first-round win over Gardner-Webb; 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a second-round win over Oklahoma; and seven points, a career-high 11 rebounds and two blocks in a Sweet Sixteen win over Oregon.
Then came the Elite Eight showdown with Purdue in Louisville, Ky., where Diakite hit a shot that will live forever in UVA basketball lore.
With the Boilermakers leading 70-68 late Saturday night, UVA guard Ty Jerome missed a free throw with 5.9 seconds left at the KFC Yum! Center. Diakite batted down the rebound into the backcourt, where freshman point guard Kihei Clark retrieved the ball, took two dribbles and then spotted Diakite open near the lane.
Diakite caught Clark’s long pass and, in one motion, went up for a 12-foot jump shot that left his hand an instant before the horn sounded. Diakite’s aim was true, and the game went to overtime, in which the Wahoos prevailed 80-75 to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
“I just grabbed it and let it go,” Diakite said afterward. “Just trusted my instincts.”
Diakite finished with 14 points and seven rebounds and matched his career high with four blocks against Purdue, and the Cavaliers are hoping he’ll have a significant impact in their next game, too.
“He’s had a really good season,” Bennett said, “and I think that was the key to our success.”
At 6:09 p.m. Saturday, in the first NCAA semifinal, South Region champion UVA (33-3) meets Midwest Region winner Auburn (30-9) at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. East Region winner Michigan State (32-6) and West Region champion Texas Tech (30-6) follow in the second semifinal.
The NCAA held a teleconference Monday afternoon on which the head coaches of Final Four team — Bennett, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Texas Tech’s Chris Beard – each had a 20-minute segment.
Of the four, only Izzo has been to the Final Four as a head coach. Bennett, however, was a volunteer manager on the Wisconsin team that reached the Final Four in 2000. The Badgers’ head coach that season, of course, was his father, Dick Bennett, who remains revered in the profession.
Two father-son combinations have guided teams to the Final Four: the Bennetts, at Wisconsin and UVA; and John Thompson and John Thompson III, each of whom did so at Georgetown.
A former head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl said Monday that “one of the very first videotapes I ever bought was [one on] Dick Bennett’s man-to-man defense, and believe it or not, it was about pressuring the ball at the nine or putting in the box, keeping it in the box, sending everything to the baseline.
“And then many years later, he completely turned that around and created the Pack Line defense, sending it middle, getting into gaps, not extending catches quite as much. It was a complete and total reversal. I adopted his first tape, and in many ways still keep some of those same principles. I would say Dick Bennett taught me, through clinics and tapes, a lot of how we try to guard even still to this day.”
This is the Cavaliers’ 10th season under Tony Bennett, and his program has become synonymous with the Pack Line. Virginia has allowed an average of 55.4 points per game this season. In Auburn, the ‘Hoos will face an opponent that, led by guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, averages 80.2 points per game.
“We don’t see the Pack Line as much in the SEC as they do in the ACC,” Pearl said, “so I know it will be a real challenge for us. Sometimes we play against teams that do a lot of switching, take away the 3-ball, and you’ve just got to find other ways to be able to score.”
In the NCAA tournament, Michigan State has been a nemesis for the Cavaliers, beating them in the Sweet Sixteen in 2014 and in the second round a year later. Izzo said Monday that he’s delighted about Virginia’s success this postseason.
“I don’t know if you cheer for people — I guess you do in certain ways — but Tony’s been one I cheer for,” Izzo said. “I’ve known him since he was a little kid. I used to work his dad’s camps … I have the utmost respect for his dad, and I’ve always had tremendous respect for Tony.”
In 2018, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney history to lose to a No. 16 seed, a setback to which Bennett responded with grace and poise.
“I got to admit, my respect for Tony, if it’s possible to upgrade, was upgraded last year with the way he handled that loss [to UMBC],” Izzo said. “I’m not sure there was anybody that’s ever done a better job of handling something. And in his own way, using that as a motivator to not feel sorry for ourselves. It’s part of who we are, and let’s move forward.”
This will be the first Final Four appearance for Auburn, which lost its best post player, 6-8, 230-pound Chuma Okeke, to a season-ending knee injury in its Sweet Sixteen win over North Carolina on Friday.
“He was and still is our most valuable player,” Pearl said. Even without Okeke, though, the Tigers remain formidable, as they showed Sunday in their Elite Eight win over Kentucky.
“They have a wide range of guys,” Bennett said.
Most of those players experienced the sting of losing to Clemson in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament.
“From that moment forward, our goal this year was unfinished business,” Pearl said.
Veterans dominate the four teams that will play in Minneapolis this weekend. Teams that rely heavily on freshmen often struggle in the NCAA tournament, Pearl said, “because they don’t have the experience of having not gotten there.
“Virginia had the experience of not getting there a year ago. That experience has helped them grind through this tremendous run they’ve had. That experience we had a year ago of not being able to advance through the tournament helped us as well.”