By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– One-third of the way through the regular season, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team is 2-0 in the ACC, 9-1 overall and ranked No. 9 nationally.
In 2018-19, when the Cavaliers won the program’s first NCAA title, they could almost always count on major contributions from their Big Three: De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, each of whom was selected in the NBA draft after the season.
Head coach Tony Bennett’s 10th team at UVA is not nearly as dominant or talented, and it’s not always easy to predict who’ll take on a leading role from game to game. It might be fifth-year senior Mamadi Diakite, or sophomore Kihei Clark, or redshirt junior Jay Huff, or senior Braxton Key, or junior Tomas Woldetensae, or sophomore Kody Stattmann or freshman Casey Morsell.
“We need ’em all,” Bennett said Wednesday night after Virginia’s 56-44 win over Stony Brook at John Paul Jones Arena. “That’s why I tell all of them, ‘Stay encouraged, even when you feel like [you] want to be out there.’ You just don’t know what the game is going to present.”
The 7-1 Huff, who had started the Wahoos’ previous two games, came off the bench against the Seawolves (7-6), who compete in the America East Conference.
“It’s just the way it is sometimes,” Huff said. “You’ve got to be ready for whatever you’re given, whatever opportunities you earn.”
After Stony Brook cut its deficit to five with 6:48 remaining, Huff helped the Hoos break the game open. First he followed a miss by Clark to make it 45-38. Then, after using a head fake to get his defender in the air, he drove for a layup that pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to nine.
For good measure, Huff then blocked a shot at the other end, starting a fast break that ended with Clark’s lob to the 6-7 Stattmann for a dunk. Huff finished with 12 points, a team-high seven rebounds, one steal and one block in 23 minutes.
“That was good to see,” Bennett said. “We need his scoring and shot-blocking. I tell all those guys, ‘You just keep staying ready.’ I liked how Jay gave us some offensive lifts, and then a couple key rebounds and blocks that we were very important for us.”
The 6-5 Woldetensae, a junior-college transfer, contributed pivotal plays, too. After a Stony Brook trey had cut the Cavaliers’ lead to four, Stattmann passed to Woldetensae, who banked in a 3-pointer.
“That was a real killer,” Stony Brook head coach Geno Ford said, “because when you’re playing them, they’re so great on defense that [when that] three banks in, it almost feels like it’s worth nine. Because you just don’t have a lot of possessions to make up for it.”
Woldetensae hit another 3-pointer with 3:09 left, and that one was more conventional. Asked about his teammate’s first trey, Clark smiled.
“We needed points,” Clark said. “We’ll take any points in a low-scoring game.”
In the first-ever meeting between these teams, the points came in a hurry for the Cavaliers early. Stattmann’s 3-pointer made it 14-2 about six minutes in, and a rout seemed imminent.
“I was really concerned at the first media timeout,” Ford said. “We got off a horrible start. We looked tentative. We looked kind of scared of the moment.”
The Seawolves steadied themselves, however, and the Cavaliers cooled off. Virginia didn’t score again until the 7:51 mark, when Diakite’s two free throws made it 16-9.
“That’s something we knew coming into this year we were going to face,” Diaikite said of UVA’s offensive inconsistency, “so we just keep working at it and keep taking steps until we figure it out.”
In 36 minutes, Diakite totaled 13 points, six rebounds, two blocks and one assist. The 5-9 Clark led the Cavaliers with 14 points, one shy of his career high, and had a game-high six assists.
“I thought when we needed some big plays, Mamadi and Kihei came up with them,” Bennett said.
Clark wasn’t perfect. He had a season-high six turnovers, several of them unforced, which “allowed [Stony Brook] to stay in striking distance when it didn’t need to be that way,” Bennett said. “But they made the plays when they needed to, and that’s two of our most experienced players. They have to continue to do that and lead to the best of their abilities.”
The 6-8 Key, who had missed the previous three games with a wrist injury, played seven minutes off the bench Wednesday and, not surprisingly, looked rusty. With a soft cast on his left (non-shooting) hand, Key pulled down one rebound and missed the only shot he took.
“That’ll just kind of be a work in progress,” Bennett said.
Clark played through a similar injury last season. His advice to Key?
“I just tell him not to get discouraged,” Clark said. “He’s playing with one hand, so he just tries to help the team in any way he can. We’re a team, and unity is one of our pillars, so he’s just trying to help the team in any way possible.”
STATUS QUO: Through nine games, opponents had shot only 31.6 percent from the floor against UVA’s Pack Line defense. The Seawolves finished at 37.8 percent, but little came easily for them.
“They’re just a terrific team, Virginia,” Ford said. “They do all the little things well and they’re honestly what teams around the country want to emulate and who they want to be. You see a team that just does all the little things right all the time.
“They play hard on defense, even when they’re not making shots. You can talk about that all you want. There are not many teams in the country that can consistently do that.”
Stony Brook finished with 17 turnovers, some of which “I can’t explain,” Ford said during an entertaining press conference. “Like when you catch the ball and you’re standing out of bounds. They didn’t move the line. That thing has been there for years. So you should not do that, and we’re in a three-game stretch where we have caught the ball out of bounds two or three times. That’s concentration.”
BACK IN THE DAY: Ford played guard on the Ohio University team that came to Charlottesville and defeated UVA 94-83 at University Hall on Nov. 11, 1994.
The Cavaliers, whose starters included Jason Williford, now their associate head coach, reached the NCAA tournment’s Elite Eight that season.
Gary Trent scored 20 points and Ford added 14 for the Bobcats at University Hall.
“Boy, that’s a few years ago,” Ford said, smiling. “I actually talked to the team about that, trying to give them the old, ‘I’m 1-0 over there.’ “
SOUND BITES: Virginia improved to 95-2 under Bennett when holding opponents to fewer than 50 points. Among the postgame comments Wednesday night:
• Bennett on Stony Brook’s Mouhamadou Gueye, a 6-9 junior who blocked six UVA shots: “Not that we’re scoring a ton, but I think he took away some of our in-the-paint plays.”
• Bennett on Morsell, a freshman guard who was 1 for 7 from the floor Wednesday and is shooting 23.8 percent this season: “You just keep playing. He’s thrown into the fire, and I think it’s going to make him better in the long run, and there’s no one that wants to help the team out more by banging some shots and scoring than him. This is a great process for him. You gotta be patient, you gotta keep working, but you also gotta let it go a little bit and not let it eat you alive.”
• Ford on Diakite and Clark: “They’re hard guys to guard. Clark is so elite with his probing of the defense with the ball. He can get in small spaces, he’s got good quickness, and he’s strong with the ball. It feels like you’ve got him under control and then all of a sudden he just finds a little window and gets right through there, and then you’re in rotation. He’s as good as anyone in the country at throwing it up to those big guys.
“Diakite is just terrific. He’s a big strong guy, he’s a tough matchup, he can hurt you inside, he can make jumpers. I didn’t really feel like anything we were trying to do worked against those two, to be honest.”
• Ford on the atmosphere at JPJ: “What a great place. The fan base down here is terrific … Having a fan base that gets excited about defensive stops? There’s a lot of places it’s not like that. The fans are a significant factor in here, but they’ve been treated to about as fundamental and clean basketball you can be, and obviously Tony’s unbelievable. He does the best job of anybody.”
UP NEXT: Virginia (9-1) hosts former ACC rival South Carolina (7-4) on Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena. ABC will televise the 3 p.m. game, for which a limited number of tickets are still available.
“We’re going against a very physical, tough-minded team,” Bennett said, “and we’ll have to be ready for that.”
The Cavaliers lead their series with the Gamecocks, who now compete in the SEC, 26-24. In their first meeting in more than 16 years, UVA defeated South Carolina 69-52 in Columbia, S.C., last December.
UVA’s final non-conference game is Dec. 29 against Navy at JPJ. ESPN2 will televise the 4 p.m. game.