By Jeff White (email@example.com)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. –– As Virginia prepared to face fifth-ranked Louisville in one of the ACC’s most hostile environments, Tony Bennett’s message to his players was straightforward.
Win or lose, UVA’s head coach told them, leave this place a better team.
“And I think we did that today,” Bennett said Saturday evening after the Cavaliers fell 80-73 to the Cardinals before a frenzied crowd of 19,250. “There’s still things that we can improve, but you saw a great environment for college basketball, and we took a step in defeat.”
UVA (15-7 overall, 7-5 ACC) entered the game having won nine straight in the series, and early on it appeared Louisville (21-3, 12-1) would end that streak in emphatic fashion. The Cards (21-3, 12-1) hit five 3-pointers in the first 3 minutes, 37 seconds and led 44-30 at halftime against a Virginia defense that was allowing an average of 50.4 points per game.
That’s the most points the Wahoos had given up in a first half since allowing 48 in a one-sided loss at Tennessee on Dec. 30, 2013. Even so, Louisville head coach Chris Mack took nothing for granted at the break.
“All you keep hearing is, like, ‘Hey, if you get to 60 against Virginia you can win,’ ” Mack told reporters afterward, “and I’m saying, ‘If we score 16 points in the second half, we’re going to lose.’ “
Sure enough, the reigning NCAA champion Hoos rallied, led by junior swingman Tomas Woldetensae and sophomore point guard Kihei Clark.
“Our offense got us back in it,” Bennett said.
Woldentensae, a junior-college transfer, finished with 27 points, six more than his previous high as a Cavalier. He made 10 of 13 shots from the floor, including 7 of 10 from 3-point range.
“That’s one of the best shooting performances I’ve seen,” Mack said. “They did a real simple action, and it’s just tough to guard when a guy gets that hot. We put multiple defenders on him, and Kihei stepped up when we tried to double [Woldentensae] as he came off the screen.”
Teammate Jay Huff compared Woldetensae’s marksmanship to one of the tour de forces for which Kyle Guy was renowned as Cavalier.
“I don’t know if I can [agree],” Woldetensae said, “because Kyle was an amazing shooter and player. I just try to do my best to get a win.”
The 5-9 Clark scored 23 points, five more than his previous career best, and added seven assists and two steals, both game highs. With 3:25 left, after Woldetensae’s matched his career high with his seventh trey, Mack was called for a technical foul, and Clark sank both free throws to put Virginia ahead 70-68.
From there, little went right for the Cavaliers. With the score 70-70, fifth-year senior Mamadi Diakite went to the line for a one-and-one with 2:47 remaining. He missed the front end, and Huff was called for a foul while battling for the rebound.
That put the Cards in the double bonus, and center Steven Enoch put them ahead for good with two free throws.
Louisville, which rang up 18 points in the final 5:32, scored at least one point on each of its last 10 possessions. The 80 points were 10 more than UVA had allowed in a game all season. Moreover, the Cards outrebounded Virginia 31-19 and turned their eight offensive boards into 15 second-half points.
“We probably had a couple breakdowns, but late in the game it comes down to making plays, and they made a few more plays than we did,” Bennett said. “Now, we made some plays, so I’m not saying we didn’t, but it usually comes down to that last few possessions, few minutes of games.”
The Cavaliers, who came in as the ACC’s worst shooting team, were uncharacteristically efficient on offense Saturday. They had a season-low seven turnovers and made 11 of 22 shots from beyond the arc.
“We haven’t seen that for quite a while,” Bennett said.
Virginia’s 73 points and 53.1-percent shooting from the floor also were season highs.
“Usually our defense keeps us in there,” Bennett said. “This time our offense had to kind of keep us in there, and Louisville’s a very good team, obviously. You could see that … But you can’t forget how good you have to be defensively, and I thought there were just a few times we had some [late] breakdowns that cost us.”
At halftime, Louisville honored its 1979-80 team, the first in program history to win an NCAA title. The 2019-20 Cardinals, with an abundance of size, shooting and athleticism, are talented enough to add another banner.
“What makes Louisville good is they seem like they can play in the 50s and in the 80s,” Bennett said. “That’s what I think makes them good, their ability to play different paces and different styles.”
The Cavaliers can’t match Louisville’s firepower this season, but they still put themselves in position to knock off a top-five team on the road Saturday.
“I thought we showed that we could play with anybody,” Clark said. “Obviously it hurts, because you want to go away with a W, but I think we moved in the right direction.”
Huff said: “They’re very good, but I think that we can play with them.”
Virginia and Louisville will meet again March 7 at John Paul Jones Arena in the regular-season finale for both teams.
FINDING THEIR RANGE: Woldetensae, who missed 18 of his first 21 attempts from beyond the arc as a Cavalier, has raised his 3-point shooting percentage to 38.5. He’s made a team-high 37 treys.
“You can see he’s getting more and more comfortable,” Bennett said. “He’s got very good feel. He’s aggressive at we like to [call] hunting his shot, and our guys did a good job of finding him and screening.”
Woldetensae, a 6-5 left-hander, said he credits his improvement to “practice and extra shots … I knew I was a good shooter. I just forgot about extra shooting.”
Clark, who hit 29 treys in 2018-19, has made 26 this season. His four 3-pointers Saturday were a career high, and he’s shooting 34.2 percent from long range.
“I’m trying to shoot as much as possible, get in the gym with guys like Tom, some of the best shooters [on the team],” Clark said. “I’m just trying to work on my game every day, and I think your shot is something you can always keep improving.”
FAMILIAR FACES: Fans behind the Cavaliers’ bench included Terry Gates. A graduate of Louisville’s Ballard High, Gates played at UVA for head coach Terry Holland. (As did two other Ballard graduates, Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker.)
Also at the KFC Yum! Center was UVA guard Taylor Barnette, a graduate assistant at Louisville. Barnette played one season at Virginia before transferring to Belmont, where he became one of the Ohio Valley Conference’s most prolific 3-point shooters.
His sister, Sarah Beth, played women’s basketball at UVA after transferring there from Kentucky.
SOUND BITES: Virginia fell into a tie with Syracuse for fourth place in the ACC. Among the postgame comments Saturday in Louisville:
• Bennett: “I just want our guys to play with an edge and keep finding ways to be the best version of themselves.”
• Huff: “We know that we could have won that one, and obviously we weren’t supposed to, rankings-wise, but in this league and especially this year anybody can beat anybody.”
• Clark on Woldetensae: “He was really shooting the ball well. I just try to keep feeding him the ball and let him do his thing.”
• Woldetensae on his overall performance: “Personally, I’m not happy with how I came out at the beginning of the game. I let down my guard too often on defense, and I believe that’s what got us [off to a slow start].”
• Mack on the resilience his team showed late in the game: “You’re going to have to do that when you play against Virginia, who in my opinion is just getting better and better and better and has the looks of an NCAA Tournament team, and it’s not even close.”
• Mack on whether he mentioned UVA’s recent dominance in the series to his players: “No, we don’t talk about that stuff. We just sort of talk about what we have to do to beat the team that’s in front of us. I’m sure they have similar streaks [against] a lot of teams. When you win 35 games every year for the last four or five years, not too many teams are beating you.”
LATE SHOW: Next up for Virginia is a Tuesday night date with Notre Dame at JPJ. ESPN2 will televise the 9 o’clock game, for which a limited number of tickets remain available.
The Fighting Irish (14-8, 5-6), who are on a three-game winning streak, play Sunday night at Clemson (11-11, 5-7).
UVA has won three straight over Notre Dame and leads the series 13-2.