Looser Virginia booms Sooners with balance
A team win. "Different guys at different times," as coach Tony Bennett said a few games ago.
Kyle Guy went 0 for 10 on 3-pointers and recorded just four points, but No. 1-seeded Virginia truly showed its balance and vast weaponry Sunday in defeating No. 9-seeded Oklahoma, 63-51, to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third time in six seasons.
"An uncharacteristically cold shooting night from Kyle, but they withstood that, some foul trouble from De'Andre, but [everyone] stepped up, big plays were made, and it certainly felt good," Bennett said in the postgame news conference.
Mamadi Diakite, who got his first start in seven games because of the way he performed against Gardner-Webb and because Bennett liked the matchup for him against Kristian Doolittle, was brilliant for the second straight contest, finishing with 14 points, nine rebounds, three blocks and a steal. The 6-foot-9 junior recorded 31 points and 18 rebounds in the first two rounds of the tournament. When this version of Diakite shows up, Virginia can be the best team in the Big Dance, and when he plays this well, he can go full-on Dennis Rodman with the hair. I don't care. Multicolored hair, wedding dress and all. Whatever. Average 15.5 and 9, and you're fine with me.
Diakite was excellent with his finishes and his hands, throwing down some dunks and catching an excellent alley-oop from Braxton Key in the second half. He finished 7 of 9 from the floor. On defense, he was able to lock down Doolittle and bother him with his length, limiting the senior to eight points and five rebounds. In the Sooners' destruction of Ole Miss, Doolittle collected an astounding 19 points and 15 boards.
"I've just been patient, very patient, and letting the game come to me," Diakite said of his past two games. "I wasn't trying to force anything. I was locked in, and I was trying to respond to the challenge coach gave me. He started me tonight, and I wanted to prove to him I was ready to play."
Key was close to a double-double, too, finishing with nine points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes to go along with two assists, a steal, and a block. He sometimes struggles with finishing right around the rim but was 4 for 4, making one really awkward-angle shot off a miss. He also had great awareness on a fast break that helped him gather a behind-the-back pass from Guy and finish with a layup. The Alabama transfer also knocked down a 3, one of just seven in 24 attempts for the 'Hoos.
Ty Jerome finished with 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting, 2 of 3 from beyond the arc (making one after a nice crossover got him separation as he drained the shot for a 16-point lead), three assists and no turnovers -- Virginia had just six. He also had three steals, the niftiest of which came at midcourt when he stepped in front of a pass with 5:36 left in the game and Virginia up 13. The steal led to the fast break where Key finished off the razzle-dazzle assist from Guy.
Though the team has high aspirations, Jerome wasn't taking the appearance in the Sweet 16 for granted.
"It means everything to me -- my first time in the Sweet 16," Jerome said. "Everyone is talking about Final Four, but I've never been to a Sweet 16. And just this opportunity to play with this group again for a whole 'nother week and practice with this group and keep traveling with this group. I think that's what means the most, just keep playing with this group of guys."
With Hunter hampered by foul trouble, he played 30 minutes, but came away with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting, 2 of 5 from deep, and three rebounds, a steal, and a block. The 'Hoos had six blocks, two above their season average. Hunter helped Virginia start the game with a 7-0 run by making the game's first shot, a 3-pointer. I'm sure it helped settle the Wahoos. Bennett said after the game the team did indeed feel looser after getting past the loaded-with-meaning 1-16 game.
"Only the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff who were part of last year's team and this year's team can truly appreciate and understand [the situation]," Bennett said. "We tried to get back to this spot. Even to be a 1 seed, and to be down in that game, definitely, pressure in terms of the game. So that was real. You could feel it. To show the resilience to get through that.... It was a different feel. No college basketball team really in the history of the game has had to go through that. It's our doing. We were the first 1-seed to lose last year. And then to fight back and become a 1-seed, and then to be in that situation again, and you talk about trying to focus in, and then getting down, it was real. And those guys will have that, as something they can always draw upon, to say we faced a giant and battled through it. So I think for sure they were in a better place to start this game."
Kihei Clark silenced some of his doubters, playing a very solid game to finish with nine points, two boards, and two assists (one flaw was he did have a pair of turnovers), plus he had some nice finishes at the rim in addition to a late 3 that pushed UVa's lead from 10 to 13 with 2:57 left. He was also Virginia's most consistent free throw shooter, going 2 for 2 on a night when the team was just 2 of 5, struggling at getting to the line and converting when there.
Jay Huff played nine important minutes in the first half. When he entered, it was 15-13 Virginia. He played out the half, and UVa went into the break up 31-22. Huff electrified the crowd with five consecutive points, first a 3-pointer and then a quickly-becoming-patented shot fake and long-legged drive to the rim topped off with a throwdown. Huff also finished with three rebounds and a block. Many fans were wondering why he didn't play in the second half, and Bennett simply said he thought about it, but things were going smoothly so he didn't insert him. Fair enough, but there's no doubt the team can use his infusion of energy at times.
"His length, he scrambled, he did a good job defensively, his dunk, the 3," Bennett said. "That's what you need in these settings -- for different guys to step up."
As you can see, the game was really won up and down the box score. With Guy being ice cold, Virginia had to manufacture points in other ways and did just that. I do think the Cavaliers will need to get hotter as the tournament goes on. Making about 30 percent of their 3s just won't cut it at a certain point, but they were able to sustain it Sunday since they simply outclassed the Sooners, who quickly noticed they weren't facing a team like the Rebels in the second round.
"Virginia's good, they're really good," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. "I thought they had us out of rhythm on our offensive end. I thought they did what they wanted to on their offensive end, as they do. They dictate to you. We didn't fight that quite well enough."
Virginia's quick start was the opposite of the one it had against Gardner-Webb, and save for a spurt by Oklahoma to go up 13-9, UVa dominated. The Sooners led for three minutes, and then Guy made back-to-back layups to go up 15-13, and UVa never trailed again. After Clark made a crafty left-handed layup a minute into the second half, the margin remained in double digits the rest of the way.
It wasn't an excellent effort from UVa on offense, but the balanced scoring -- different guys at different times -- scrappiness, hustle and trademark defense were enough to coast past Oklahoma.
"But we're nowhere near relaxed, nowhere near satisfied," Jerome said. "We're not even really close to our end goal."
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Articles on This Game
- I Will Be Ok by , posted on April 8, 2019, in Blog. Has tags (n) UMBC (March 16, 2018), (n) Texas Tech (April 8, 2019), (n) Auburn (April 6, 2019), (n) Purdue (March 30, 2019), (n) Oregon (March 28, 2019), (n) Oklahoma (March 24, 2019), (n) Gardner-Webb (March 22, 2019), NCAA Tournament
- Episode 13 Audiocast: Lowering the Boom Is So Sweet by , posted on March 26, 2019, in Blog. Has tags Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark, (n) Oregon (March 28, 2019), (n) Oklahoma (March 24, 2019)
- Episode 12 Audiocast: Immediate Reactions! by , posted on March 23, 2019, in Blog. Has tags (n) Oklahoma (March 24, 2019), (n) Gardner-Webb (March 22, 2019)