By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– They won’t all be one-sided affairs. After winning its first three games by an average of 21 points, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team found itself trailing unbeaten Vermont with 5:25 to play at John Paul Jones Arena.
In 2018-19, en route to their first NCAA title, the Cavaliers displayed uncanny poise in pressure situations, but several of the key players from that team have moved on. How would head coach Tony Bennett’s latest group perform late in a tight game, with every possession critical?
The first such test came Tuesday against, against the Catamounts, and UVA did not flinch when the game grew tense. The seventh-ranked Cavaliers dominated the final five minutes and won 61-55 before a boisterous crowd of 13,913 at JPJ.
“I never got worried, even when we were down late,” point guard Kihei Clark said. “Just keep knocking away, keep pushing, keep doing what we do, and we kind of imposed our will on them.”
The Wahoos (4-0) survived a shooting performance reminiscent of Purdue guard Carsen Edwards’ tour de force against them in the Elite Eight last season, this one by Vermont forward Anthony Lamb. The 6-6 senior hit a 3-pointer as time expired in the first half, cutting UVA’s lead to 24-18, and that seemed to unleash him.
“All of the sudden he got his rhythm,” Bennett said.
After intermission, Lamb made six more treys, many of them from NBA range. One of them put America East power Vermont (4-1) up four with 9:38 to play. He finished with 30 points.
“He’s a tough guy to guard when he’s hot like that,” said UVA’s Braxton Key, a 6-8 senior who covered Lamb for much of the second half. “He’s really talented … He hit a really tough one over me from probably Steph Curry range.”
Bennett said: “I have the utmost respect for him. When a guy like that can all of the sudden stretch you out, it’s impressive.”
Late in the game, the Cavaliers put 6-9 Mamadi Diakite on Lamb, and the switch paid dividends. In the final five minutes, Lamb had two turnovers and missed all three of his field-goal attempts.
“He reminded me of last year when we played Purdue, Carsen Edwards hitting again and again and again,” Diakite said. “It’s not that you couldn’t stop him, but it’s one of those days when everything falls. But again, at the end, I wanted to take the challenge. I responded to it.”
Diakite, a fifth-year senior, responded at the other end of the court too. He put the Hoos ahead to stay with 5:11 left, when he converted a high-low pass from Jay Huff. Diakite led the Cavaliers with 19 points, which matched his career high, and his three 3-pointers (on three attempts) were also a career high.
Vermont head coach John Becker complimented Diakite’s play, as did his UVA counterpart. But Bennett wasn’t pleased that Diakite let his emotions boil over late in the game.
“Play with passion, but remain humble and let your play do the talking,” Bennett said. “I think that’s really important.”
Diakite said: “It’s part of my growth. He’s telling me I have to grow. There’s always room to grow. I kind of got pumped up. I wanted to take the challenge. I was excited at that moment. That’s the reason why I went at the guy, because he talked to me, and I answered it, and I got caught in the moment.”
Huff made his first start as a Cavalier and played a career-high 32 minutes. The 7-1 redshirt junior had a strong second half and finished with nine points and a team-high seven rebounds.
Key, who played his first two seasons at Alabama, added 14 points, six boards and four assists, his most at UVA. From start to finish, though, the most effective Cavalier was probably Clark, who was characteristically unflappable late in the game.
The 5-9 sophomore made 5 of 7 shots from the floor, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, and scored a career-high 15 points. He also had four assists, three rebounds and a blocked shot.
“I thought Clark was really the engine that drove them,” Becker said, “and he was a tough cover.”
As a freshman, when he started 20 games, Clark scored in double figures only twice, in part because he had players like Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter around him. That Clark has expanded his game doesn’t surprise Bennett.
“I’ve learned not to question him and what he can do,” Bennett said, “because I saw him in some remarkable situations as an inexperienced first-year in the biggest moments step up and do a number of things when it was needed at the most high-pressured situations.
“So it was great to see [Clark’s performance against Vermont]. It really was. He’s so quick. He can put pressure on you off the ball screen, but if they go under, he’s shown he’ll knock down the 3.”
UVA, which played without 6-7 sophomore Kody Stattmann, who was ill, fell behind 7-0 on Tuesday night. But the Cavaliers then held Vermont, seeking its first-ever win over a top-10 team, scoreless for more than eight minutes, during which they scored 14 points.
“The way we’re going to win, we know our way,” Bennett said. “It’s got to be sound with the ball, get the right shots, make free throws, and then be tough as nails defensively.”
SHORT-HANDED: With Stattmann out, Virginia’s options in the backcourt were limited.
Tomas Woldentensae, a junior-college transfer, started at shooting guard. The 6-5 junior was 1 for 7 from the floor but grabbed six rebounds.
Chase Coleman, a freshman walk-on, spelled Clark for about three minutes in the first half. Another freshman, 6-3 Casey Morsell, played 28 minutes off the bench. Morsell continues to struggle with his shot – he’s 3 for 27 from the floor this season – but he got a high-five from Bennett after forcing a turnover with 4:35 left.
In a conversation this week with Morsell, Bennett told reporters, “I said, ‘First of all, I recruited you because you’re a heck of a person that represents what we believe in, and you’re a heck of a player. But let’s start defensively.’ I said, ‘Be a defensive warrior for us. Be a defensive maniac, play wild-eyed, get on the floor, grab some rebounds, spread out, find your identity in that. And offensively be sound, take the shots when they’re there and don’t stress about it too much.’
“That’s all I know to say, and I thought he really tried hard to be as good as he could defensively. He’s still finding his way, but what an invaluable opportunity that he had to be in there.”
SOUND BITES: Virginia has won 20 straight non-conference games at JPJ. Among the postgame comments Tuesday night:
• Diakite: “Today was a perfect example of trying to outlast the other team.”
• Diakite on his less-prominent role in UVA’s offense last season: “We had shooters [like] Kyle Guy. Who wouldn’t let Kyle Guy shoot? You’re not a good coach if you’re not doing that. I was telling Kyle Guy myself, you can ask him, ‘I’ll go and screen for you. If you don’t shoot it, I’m going to fight you after the game.’ It was a joke, but he knew what I meant.”
• Becker on the Cavaliers: “They were composed and poised and made the plays they needed to to beat us.”
• Becker on Lamb: “He’s the hardest-working kid I’ve ever been around, and that’s saying something.”
UP NEXT: Virginia heads to Uncasville, Conn., for the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off Tournament. At noon Saturday, in a game to be shown on ESPNews, UVA meets Massachusetts at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The radio broadcast of the game will be on WINA AM 1070 and FM 98.9 in Charlottesville and on VirginiaSports.com. UVA’s football game against Liberty (noon kickoff) that day will be broadcast on the statewide Virginia Sports Network, including FM 97.5 in Charlottesville and on VirginiaSports.com.
The Cavaliers will face Arizona State or St. John’s on Sunday at 1 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.
UMass (4-0) hosts Rider on Wednesday night. The Wahoos and the Minutemen haven’t met since Nov. 26, 1996. UVA leads the series 2-0.