By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– For basketball teams that have NCAA tournament aspirations but lack slam-dunk résumés, the significance of each game grows as postseason approaches.
Virginia and Notre Dame are two such teams, and they met late Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. In an ACC clash that was as competitive as it was occasionally difficult to watch, UVA scored three points in overtime, all on free throws, but still prevailed 50-49 before a spirited crowd of 13,696.
The victory, coupled with Syracuse’s loss to NC State earlier in the evening, left the Cavaliers (16-7, 8-5) in sole possession of fourth place in the ACC. The Fighting Irish, who came to Charlottesville on a four-game winning streak, fell to 15-9, 6-7.
“It’s a quality win for Virginia,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
The Wahoos captured their first NCAA title last spring, but little has come easily for them this season, and that was the case again Tuesday night. Virginia turned the ball over 13 times and missed 15 of 20 shots from 3-point range. As usual, though, the Cavaliers played rugged man-to-man defense, and that made up for their offensive lapses.
“We missed free throws, we had some key turnovers down the stretch, and [the Irish] missed some open shots, but we’ll take it,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said. “We did fight and we battled and came up with a tough win … Maybe we didn’t play as well tonight, but both teams have been winning and on a good trend, so that was two teams that had some momentum. Home court got us one.”
So did the Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense. Three of the Irish’s top players––6-9 John Mooney, 6-3 T.J. Gibbs and 6-6 Rex Pflueger––were a combined 6 for 30 from the floor. Overall, the Irish shot 32.8 percent. The 49 points––in 45 minutes, no less––were a season low for Notre Dame, which came in averaging 76.2 per game.
“Give credit to Virginia,” Brey said. “Again, they’re really hard to score against, and we had a couple possessions down the stretch where they just kind of shut us down, and it’s kind of hard to run your stuff.”
The game’s final point came on a free throw by UVA senior Braxton Key, who moments earlier had airballed his first foul shot. That made it 50-49 with 2:04 left in overtime, and offensive futility by both teams marked the rest of the game.
“Defense wins ball games is about all we can say about that,” Virginia redshirt junior Jay Huff told reporters afterward.
Notre Dame’s final possession began with 18.2 seconds left in OT. UVA point guard Kihei Clark hounded Prentiss Hubb, who drove and then passed to Pflueger in the right corner. Pflueger’s 3-point attempt was off the mark, and after grabbing his 13th rebound, Key tossed the ball into the frontcourt, where Clark tracked it down as time expired.
Bennett’s message to his players before the Irish’s final possession? “Just don’t give them anything too easy at the rim. Make them get a tough shot.”
Brey said: “You really aren’t going to design something against them and get it. You’ve got to almost play and take the open look. So we’ll kind of live with [Pflueger’s shot].”
Mooney, who came in averaging 16.5 points and 13.0 rebounds, posted another double-double (11 points, 14 rebounds). But the Cavaliers made things difficult for him, periodically double-teaming him in the post. Mooney finished 4 for 14 from the floor against a front line led by the 7-1 Huff and 6-9 Mamadi Diakite.
Huff blocked Mooney’s layup attempt in the final seconds of the second half to force overtime.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Huff said, “so to hold him to 11 points and 4-of-14 [shooting], I think we take great pride in that. The way we play defense, very rarely is it one person locking someone up, unless it’s Kihei.”
Diakite, a fifth-year senior, led the Cavaliers with 20 points, his career high in an ACC game. Huff added eight points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots and one steal. He scored all of those points in an exhilarating 109-second stretch of the second half.
It started with a 3-pointer that tied the game at 38-38 with 9:48 remaining. Two possessions later, the Hoos went to Huff in the paint, and his jump hook made it 40-38, giving them their first lead since midway through the first half. After blocking a shot at the other end, Huff then hit another trey to push UVA’s lead to 43-38.
“That was a great stretch,” Bennett said. “I thought he took a good step tonight. He’s been doing some really good stuff.”
Late in the second half, Diakite went through a rough stretch that included the missed front end of a one-and-one and a turnover, but his jumper in the lane tied the game at 47-47 with 25.1 seconds left.
“There’s going to be ebbs and flows during games, and you hope that’s where your maturity and your experiences come in handy,” Bennett said.
“Mamadi has such a joy and a contagious, energetic spirit about him, and sometimes when you’re that way, you can kind of go up and down. But he’s getting better in terms of being steadier, and I thought he led well, and I was thankful for that.”
Bennett is thankful, too, that his team has stayed together through what at times has been a trying season.
“We said, ‘All for one, one for all,’ ” Bennett told reporters. “I think at this time of the year, the teams that really embody that and are so united, they can separate, and that separates the good teams from the rest … When guys are united and they’re pulling for each other and they have that, that’s a joy, and I think these guys do that.
“This is a different year, but it’s our year, and our way is our way. And we’re scrapping and we’re fighting, and I know it’s not perfect, but we’ve got each other’s back, and we’re all for one.”
OFF THE MARK: Virginia, which shot a season-high 50 percent from 3-point range Saturday in a close loss at No. 5 Louisville, dipped to 25 percent against Notre Dame.
Junior swingman Tomas Woldetensae, 7 for 10 on 3-pointers against the Cardinals, was 1 for 8 from long range Tuesday night.
“He just got in the zone against Louisville,” Bennett said. “Shooting’s a funny thing … He just wasn’t quite feeling it, and Notre Dame did a nice job of being aware of him. When a guy goes 7 for 10 from 3, they’re going to track him.”
Freshman guard Casey Morsell made one of Virginia’s five 3-pointers, his first trey since Jan. 20. Morsell finished with five points in 19-plus minutes off the bench and played stifling man-to-man defense.
“Casey gave us a lift,” Bennett said.
SOUND BITES: The Cavaliers’ fourth straight win over Notre Dame increased their series lead to 14-2. Among the postgame comments Tuesday night:
• Bennett: “It’s not at the point where if you drop one, that’s it, you’re out of postseason play. It’s not there, but every win is a step toward trying to get to postseason. Quality win, quality opponent, at home.”
• Diakite: “It was a very important game, and we needed it very much, and we won it. The intensity reminded me of the tournament. Both teams needed to win, and they laid it out.”
• Brey on the Cavaliers’ ability to win ugly: “We thought it’d be a rock fight. I told [Notre Dame’s players] it would. It was, and they’re probably more accustomed to the rock fights than us.”
• Bennett on Huff’s defense: “It’s getting better. I think Jay’s improving, as is Mamadi. It’s just a gradual process. I’m pleased with how he’s evolving as a defensive player, and offensively.”
• Huff on the game’s significance: “We talked about that before the game. We were saying how in some ways a lot of people might not be paying attention to this game, because it’s [two] bubble teams, but it was a really important game for us, as is every game. And I think [Notre Dame] thought the same thing.”
• Huff on Virginia’s propensity for playing close games: “We like to keep it exciting at the very end.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Three of the Cavaliers’ next four games are on the road, starting Saturday night against North Carolina (10-14, 3-10) in Chapel Hill. ESPN will televise the 8 o’clock game.
Virginia’s lone home game during this stretch comes next Wednesday, when Boston College visits JPJ. ACC Network will air the 8 p.m. game, for which a limited number of tickets remain available.
UNC fell 74-57 at Wake Forest on Tuesday night.
“We’re going into a setting where it’s crazy, and they’re a wounded animal right now,” Diakite said of the Tar Heels. “They lost, so they’re going to be ready for us.”
Virginia defeated North Carolina 56-47 at JPJ on Dec. 8. The victory was UVA’s fifth straight over UNC.