By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG –– In one sense, this has been a typical basketball season for the University of Virginia, where head coach Tony Bennett turns out successful teams year after year. For the ninth season in a row, the Cavaliers have reached the 20-win mark, and as always they’ve relied on their rugged man-to-man defense to carry them in games when their shots aren’t falling.
This UVA team, though, lacks the firepower to overwhelm opponents the way many of its predecessors did. Of the Cavaliers’ victories this season, eight have come by five points or fewer.
“We love close games, for some reason,” senior forward Braxton Key said with a smile Wednesday night at Cassell Coliseum.
The Wahoos’ latest victory featured considerable drama and an unforgettable ending. With the crowd of 9,275 on its feet, sophomore point guard Kihei Clark pulled up for a 3-pointer that dropped through with 2.6 seconds left to lift Virginia to a 56-53 win over Virginia Tech.
“That was cold-blooded,” teammate Mamadi Diakite, a 6-9 fifth-year senior, said after his final game at Cassell Coliseum. On the other side of the country, former UVA guard Kyle Guy had the same assessment.
— Kyle J Guy (@kylejguy5) February 27, 2020
Late-game heroics, of course, are nothing new for Clark, who teamed with Diakite on one of the most memorable plays in NCAA tournament history last year against Purdue in the Elite Eight. He scored half of his 10 points in the final 2:34 Wednesday night.
“He makes big shots. That’s Kihei,” said Bennett, whose record against Virginia Tech in 11 seasons at Virginia is 16-6.
With the victory, its fifth straight, UVA clinched a top-four seed––and a double bye––in next month’s ACC tournament. Virginia (20-7 overall, 12-5 ACC), which has won eight of its past nine games, also further bolstered its NCAA tournament résumé.
“We’re learning,” said Key, who had 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. “We’re turning in the right direction.”
The win was the Cavaliers’ fourth straight in this series, but little came easily for them in this Commonwealth Clash game after they built a 15-point halftime lead. As Tech (15-13, 6-11) heated up, its fans woke up.
The Hokies were 8 for 14 from 3-point range in the second half, and with three minutes left they led 51-48.
“You know here they were going to make a run, and they started attacking, and they made some long 3s,” Bennett said.
The Hoos didn’t panic. They rarely do. “We’ve been in those spots a lot this year,” Clark said.
“We love being in that situation,” Key said.
With 2:34 left, the 5-9 Clark, who’s right-handed, hit a left-handed runner in the lane to cut Tech’s lead to 51-50. On Virginia’s next possession, sophomore swingman Kody Stattmann lifted his defender with a pump fake, drove into the lane and spotted freshman guard Casey Morsell open in the left corner.
Morsell’s 3-pointer put the Hoos back on top, 53-51, with 1:58 to play. The score hadn’t changed when the ball came to Morsell in the same spot with 25 seconds left. This 3-point attempt, however, was off the mark, and Tech’s Tyrece Radford scored on a driving layup to tie the game at 53-53 with 11.3 seconds left.
Bennett considered calling a time out but opted to let Clark try to pierce Tech’s defense. Clark shook his defender, 5-10 Jalen Cone, and stepped back for a 3-pointer that silenced the Hokies’ fans.
“Thank goodness I didn’t [call a timeout],” Bennett said. “Sometimes it’s just better to let a guy get momentum and attack, and he backed the guy up and what a beautiful 3. He’s a winner. I’ve said that often.”
When these teams met Jan. 4 at John Paul Jones Arena, UVA rolled 65-39, and redshirt freshman Landers Nolley II (18 points) was the only Hokie to score in double figurest. Tech was 4 for 25 from 3-point range in Charlottesville, and the rematch unfolded in similar fashion for the first 20 minutes.
At halftime Wednesday night, the Hoos led 26-11, and the Hokies were 1 for 13 from beyond the arc. But that changed quickly once the second half began. Tech hit six of its first seven shots after intermission, including three treys.
“The 3-point shoot can be such a momentum swing,” Bennett said. “They started going, and you could just feel it. When they got the lead, this place gets very loud, so our guys responded well.”
Diakite made 8 of 12 shots from the floor and led all scorers with 19 points. He also grabbed six rebounds and blocked two shots. With 13 first-half points, he outscored the Hokies by himself in that period.
“I was very aggressive,” Diakite said. “I knew the team needed it. I knew they were going to throw a double on me, but I didn’t care. I just attacked, and that opened up a lot of stuff for the rest of the guys.”
For Key, the double-double was the third of his career. Two have come against the Hokies. He totaled 18 points and 10 rebounds in UVA’s Jan. 4 win over Virginia Tech.
COOL, CALM, COLLECTED: Free throws have been an adventure at times for the Cavaliers this season, but they were 6 for 6 from the line in the final eight minutes, with Key, Diakite and 6-5 junior Tomas Woldetensae each going 2 for 2.
FAMILIAR FACE: Among the fans seated behind the UVA bench was Karl Kuhn, who’s in his first season as Radford University’s head baseball coach. Kuhn, who was wearing a Virginia sweatshirt, spent 16 years as the Cavaliers’ pitching coach before taking the Radford job last summer.
BIG MOMENT: Morsell is shooting only 17.9 percent from 3-point range, but he has a knack for coming through in pressure situations. He made a clutch trey late against Arizona State in November, and his 3-pointer Wednesday night put Virginia back ahead for good.
“To see Casey do that in that setting was really big,” Bennett said.
Morsell said: “I was confident, it felt good, I was in rhythm.”
SOUND BITES: The victory was the third straight for UVA at Cassell Coliseum. Among the postgame comments Wednesday night:
• Clark on his game-winner: “I kind of knew it was going in as soon as I let it go.”
• Morsell on UVA’s final possession: “I have faith in Kihei. He had the ball in his hands, and we just let him go do his thing.”
• Bennett: “We didn’t play very good second-half defense, and I want to credit Virginia Tech. They had a terrific second half. They hit big, tough shots, deep shots, spread you out, and they really battled … I didn’t think we were as sharp as we needed to be.”
• Bennett on Virginia’s resilience: “Our guys didn’t panic. They had a steadiness about them.”
• Bennett on his team’s late-game execution: “Some guys made plays, and I’ve said that repeatedly: You have to in those situations make plays offensively, defensively, what have you.”
• Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young: “We had great shots in the first half and had the same shots in the second that we had in the first. We just happened to get the second-half shots to go down.”
• Young on the Cavaliers: “They played awfully well and sound.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Three regular-season games remain for UVA, and two of them are at JPJ. The first comes Saturday, when Virginia (20-7, 12-5) hosts No. 7 Duke (23-5, 13-4). ESPN will televise the 6 p.m. game, which is sold out.
“They’re all big from this point on,” Bennett said.
The Blue Devils lost in double overtime Tuesday night to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C. “They’ll come in, I’m sure, focused and ready to play, and we’ve got to be the same,” Bennett said.
UVA has dropped two straight to Duke since winning at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 27, 2018.