Virginia vexes Louisville again with adjustments
No. 3 Virginia 64, No. 18 Louisville 52
As 3-pointer after 3-pointer found the bottom of the net in the first half for the Cardinals on Saturday -- including Jordan Nwora's banked-in attempt at the buzzer from way beyond the arc -- something dawned on me and perhaps other Wahoos fans: I don't think any of us could've blamed the basketball gods had they smiled upon Louisville. After all, the way Virginia won at the hilariously named KFC Yum! Center last season was spectacularly improbable and brutal for the Cards. And just a little over a week ago, they suffered through a 23-point meltdown at home against a full-strength Duke team, so there was no way they were going to let this 12-point lead go. Luck was bound to turn Louisville's way, and a top-five win was just meant to be.
But as the game progressed into the second half, something else became apparent to me: Virginia was flat out the better team, and the gods were not going to be able to change that. UVa was not shooting well from beyond the arc, but was otherwise dominating the action. And even when the Cavaliers were still behind, I felt comfortable. I knew if Louisville cooled off, it was over, the Cardinals were fried. And that's exactly what happened. They made 10 3-pointers in the first half but just two in the second, De'Andre Hunter took control of the affair with a career-high 26 points, and the 'Hoos cruised to a fifth top-25 road victory, a single-season record for an ACC team.
One of the notes I wrote during the game was just "Hunter awesome." Tony Bennett said in the postgame news conference the performance was "special." For the second contest in a row, Hunter got in early foul trouble. He exited with 9:21 left in the first half. When he re-entered in the second half, he quickly got to work, displaying the full arsenal of what makes him so highly regarded in NBA circles. He made all six of his field goals in the second half and 9 of 11 overall, scoring 19 points in the period. The Philadelphia native went 2 for 2 from beyond the arc (Virginia's only makes from long range, and it looked like he was robbed of another 3, which was counted as a 2) and made all six of his shots at the line, where UVa went a perfect 10 of 10.
When Bennett was asked when did he know Hunter was feeling it, he looked a little perplexed and just said, "the whole game." Besides his shooting, Hunter scored at the rim through contact, zoomed by a defender on the baseline for a dunk, and added four rebounds, two steals, and a block. Things were going so well for Hunter that even when he messed up, things turned out OK for him. In the first half, he got a steal, bobbled the ball as he was gathering for a dunk (someone will have to explain why that wasn't a travel; it looked like a recent ruling in the NBA that got roasted on Twitter), and instead got control under the rim and made a shot plus a foul. Simply put, Hunter was amazing and put it all together.
But with Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy combining for just 12 points and an 0-for-11 effort on 3-pointers, Hunter couldn't win the game alone. Enter Jay Huff and Mamadi Diakite. Both came off the bench, and both were big contributors. Huff tied a career-high with 17 minutes played -- after not playing more than eight minutes in any of the past three games -- and put up 12 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks while making 6 of his 8 shots. His reverse alley-oop on an assist from Kihei Clark with 8:21 left in the first half was important because it stopped a 9-0 run by the Cardinals that had given them their largest lead at 25-13. Later, he had an even more impressive oop when Clark passed him the ball, and he had to reach way back and up with his right arm to slam the ball. The redshirt sophomore also had a couple nice sequences where he grabbed rebounds, didn't panic, was patient, and then hit nice jump hooks after traffic cleared from the lane.
"[Huff's] offensive skill, his touch around the rim, and his length are certainly unquestioned. It's just a matter of him continuing to be good defensively, take care of the ball, and get stronger, and in all those areas, he's improving," Bennett said of what it's going to take to see Huff on the floor more. " ... He's an interesting five-man. What I loved today is he made some interior jump hooks and shots. It wasn't just out at the 3-point line or a drive. ... He was rewarded for the way he played today, and we were rewarded by the way he played, as a team."
Diakite sported a new Dennis Rodman-esque 'do but showed much better offensive skills than the former physical NBA forward. The junior from Guinea finished with 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting, five rebounds, and three blocks as he continued to display what he's capable of when he just plays his game and doesn't overthink things.
Although Guy and Jerome were pitiful on 3-pointers, they found other ways to contribute. Guy still scored eight points, and both field goals he made were converted on really nice attacks on the rim, the second of which he finished with his left hand. He added a team-high eight boards and three assists. Jerome recorded four points, five assists -- including a really nice lightning-quick pass to Diakite for a dunk in the second half -- and just one turnover. Virginia finally looked like Virginia again in terms of taking care of the ball, tallying just five turnovers after having at least 10 in five of the past six games. The five turnovers were the Cavaliers' fewest since just two at Notre Dame on Jan. 26.
Clark did not record any of the turnovers. He and Braxton Key reversed roles from the Virginia Tech game. Key got the start at Louisville after finishing strongly against the Hokies, but he didn't score and only played 10 minutes, his fewest as a 'Hoo. His one highlight was an early block. Clark didn't start but played 31 minutes and had five rebounds and four assists. His shooting was still terrible, though. Defenses are sagging off of him, and he can't even make wide-open 3s. It feels like a long time ago when he went 3 for 3 vs. Virginia Tech in Charlottesville. Also, he missed a layup with 12:31 left in the game and the score tied at 41, and Louisville came down and made a 3, which obviously could've been a big moment had Virginia not grabbed control down the stretch. With Clark a liability shooting the ball but still providing value in terms of defense and dishing the rock, against Louisville at least, I think Bennett realized he couldn't play him with Jack Salt, since neither provide a one-on-one scoring threat. As a result, Salt played just six minutes despite committing just one foul.
I think normally, we think of a set rotation heading toward tourney time as a good thing, and it certainly can be. But what should be noted recently is Bennett's willingness to throw lots of different looks at teams when certain schemes aren't working, or players are hot or having off games, or as a response to what foes are doing. Clark played in the first half against Tech, but not the second. Key was solid in Blacksburg, but then Bennett didn't like what he saw Saturday out of him. Salt is perfect against a physical big man that likes to bang around, but probably doesn't cut it when the opponent is bombing away from 3-point land and it's going to require an extra effort on offense to win (UVa scored 37 points in the second half). Bennett noted how Huff helped disrupt the 1-3-1 zone that the Cardinals used for part of the game. He also said that Virginia didn't use the post trap as much because teams are planning for it better, and so that allowed the defense to combat Louisville's 3-point shooting. It also helped with rebounding, and the 'Hoos won that battle 39-28.
"I just went with what I thought (the matchups were defensively). ... Like I said, Jack and Braxton didn't play in the second half. Jay showed flashes. It's sort of a moving target with all of our guys. ... It's what the game requires."
The fact that Bennett is speaking so openly about not only his players being versatile but himself being versatile in-game should be music to Virginia fans' ears. It could mean no true set rotation at times, but rather a rotation based on what is needed in any particular game. And with the way the roster is now constructed, Virginia has answers for lots of different situations. Hunter is an NBA-caliber player that can take over a game. Jerome is a vocal leader who runs the show and can make deep 3s. Guy can hit five 3s in any game. Clark can stay with quick guards and pester taller ones. Huff is instant offense, forces defenses to adjust, and is continuing his defensive ascent. Diakite, when dialed in, is a more-than-capable big man. Key provides experience, toughness, defense, and rebounding. Salt is tough, plays good interior 'D,' and sets solid screens on offense. This is Bennett's most versatile team, and he seems more willing than normal to tinker to find the right combo in any given game. This should be giving the players great experience for the NCAA tournament, because they will have played with different combinations of lineups. Any one combo shouldn't feel uncomfortable, which is great because you don't want to take too much time in Big Dance games to find a flow. It should feel good right away. The goal is to make other teams uncomfortable. And the more answers Virginia has, the easier it can do that.
On Saturday at Louisville, that versatile roster was a big problem for Louisville and new coach Chris Mack, as the Wahoos deftly adjusted to what was happening, waited for the home team to cool down, and then took over as they so often do. The Cavaliers continued their dominance of the Cardinals and have now won nine of the past 10 in the series. Don't fool yourself. Louisville made 12 3s and Virginia just a pair, but the Cavaliers still won on the road against a ranked team by 12. That's dominance.
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