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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Twenty games into the season, it’s clear this University of Virginia men’s basketball team, unlike its recent predecessors, is not a juggernaut that routinely produces dominant performances.
And that’s OK, says head coach Tony Bennett, who guided UVA to its first NCAA title last season. The stars of that team are now in the NBA, and these Cavaliers, out of necessity, have a different formula for success.
“We’re not the prettiest team,” Bennett said. “We don’t always play beautiful [basketball]. We can be awkward at times. At times it can be painful, but it’s who we are. So embrace it. Just play the heck out of the defense and keep trying to get better, but don’t worry about trying to be something you’re not. I think we’ve established how we have to play. Just move the needle in all areas a little bit.”
Two days after they picked up an overtime win at Wake Forest, the Wahoos moved the needle again, this time against a more formidable ACC opponent. In a nationally televised game at John Paul Jones Arena, UVA rallied late to knock off No. 5 Florida State 61-56 on Tuesday night.
“[FSU] is a heck of a team,” Bennett said, “and I liked what I saw, so we’ll take that and move on.”
The Cavaliers (14-6 overall, 6-4 ACC) scored the game’s last seven points to move into a tie for fourth place in the league. Heroes abounded for UVA in this one, but none stood taller, figuratively speaking, than Kihei Clark.
A 5-9 sophomore from the Los Angeles area, Clark put Virginia ahead for good with an up-and-under layup that he spun off the glass to make it 57-56 with 59.6 seconds left. On the Cavaliers’ previous possession, Clark had thrown a lob pass to 7-1 redshirt junior Jay Huff, who soared for the catch and dunk.
“I thought they did a great job of staying focused and moving the ball and attacking us off the dribble,” said FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team came to JPJ on a 10-game winning streak. “We’re not the rim-protecting team that we’ve been in the past, and we had a hard time containing the dribble.”
Time and again, the Cavaliers spread the floor and let Clark attack the basket. He finished with 15 points, four rebounds, four assists and one steal. On a night when Virginia was 20 for 23 from the line, Clark made all seven of his free throws.
“He might be small in stature, but he has the biggest heart in the ACC,” Hamilton said.
This was the second meeting in two weeks between these perennial ACC powers. Florida State edged Virginia 54-50 on Jan. 15 in Tallahassee, Fla. The Noles scored the game’s first eight points Tuesday night and with four minutes remaining 54-51. But the Cavaliers, spurred on by a boisterous crowd at JPJ, refused to let FSU (17-3, 7-2) prevail again.
“They seem to be finding the rhythm they have to play with in order to be successful,” Hamilton said.
In each of the Hoos’ four ACC losses, they had opportunities late to win. “We’ve been right there,” Bennett said.
The difference against FSU?
“It comes down to making plays,” Bennett said. “You’ve got to make your free throws … You’ve got to bang a shot, you’ve got to make a block, you’ve got to do some things. Offense matters to an extent, but it comes down to making plays. Tonight, we did that. We did it with a couple of big stops and free throws, and I thought Kihei was terrific.”
The Cavaliers were far from perfect Tuesday night––they committed 17 turnovers––but they shot better than usual from the floor (43.9 percent) and 3-point range (41.7 percent) and outrebounded the Noles 36-23.
UVA’s seniors, 6-9 Mamadi Diakite and 6-8 Braxton Key, pulled down nine rebounds apiece, and Huff had six.
“The bookends in our [system] are transition defense––it starts there––and then it ends with defensive rebounding,” Bennett said.
Key said: “To beat them [on the boards] by 13, that’s huge.”
Equally important was the offensive efficiency of Diakite, a fifth-year senior. He was 3 for 3 from beyond the arc, 6 for 10 from the floor overall, and 4 for 4 from the line. His two free throws with 13.9 seconds to play pushed UVA’s lead to 59-56, after which FSU misfired on two 3-point attempts.
For the season, Diakite is shooting a team-high 40 percent from 3-point range. His three treys Tuesday night matched his career high.
“I was trying to get to my sweet spot, which is posting up down low on the block, but they were doubling me,” Diakite said. “So I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to take what the defense is giving me.’ That’s what Kihei did. That’s what Braxton did.”
Key ripped the front of his No. 2 jersey out of frustration in the second half and wore a replacement jersey, No. 42, for the final 11:14. The new number seemed to agree with him.
Against Wake, Key was 3 for 9 from the line. He was 5 for 6 on free throws in the final five minutes Tuesday night and 5 for 7 overall. Key added an exclamation point to a significant victory by sinking two foul shots with one-tenth of a second to play.
“We didn’t flinch,” Bennett said. “We weren’t perfect, but enough big plays were made. You’ve got to do that down the stretch. You can’t win those games unless you take the moment and make a tough play.”
SOUND BITES: Virginia ended a two-game losing streak in a series that’s now tied 26-26. Among the postgame comments:
• Bennett on Clark’s performance: “[The Seminoles] force you to make plays … Obviously, with his size, that makes it challenging, but I thought he was excellent today. He did the same stuff at Florida State, but he learned from some of his errors, and even some of his errors early on in the game [Tuesday night], and kept getting better and better.”
• Bennett on his team’s turnovers: “We work hard at that in practice, ball security, but you can’t be so concerned that you become hesitant and passive, because you have to attack against [FSU]. So you have to live with some of those and turn ’em loose and try to season it with a little more discipline or sureness.”
• Clark on his success on drives against FSU: “I put in the work. I know I can finish layups, so I just keep shooting them and don’t get discouraged and just play with confidence.”
• Bennett on the Clark-to-Huff lob: “Jay went up and got that. I thought it was a heck of a play, and even a more impressive catch and finish.”
• Bennett, channeling Robert Frost, on the victory: “It was a good step, but there’s miles to go before we sleep, so to speak.”
• Hamilton on Devin Vassell, a 6-7 sophomore who led FSU with 17 points and six rebounds and added two assists and two steals: “He’s growing up before our eyes.”
• Hamilton on Clark: “Sometimes when you’re small and quick and fast, that has its advantages too. He’s a very clever guy with the ball.”
• Hamilton on Bennett: “I don’t think UVA could have a better representative of [its] program.”
MUCH-NEEDED BREAK: UVA (14-6, 6-4) doesn’t play again until next Wednesday (Feb. 5), when Clemson (11-9, 5-5) visits JPJ.
A limited number of tickets remain for the 7 p.m. game.

The Cavaliers have won nine straight over the Tigers and lead the series 77-52.