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Trademark gritty performance carries Cavaliers over Ducks and into Elite Eight matchup with Boilermakers

Everyone breathe. Just relax.

Had it all along, right?

Just like we all thought was going to happen, Kihei Clark was one of the saviors -- on offense -- Thursday night in Louisville as No. 1-seeded Virginia survived a rockfight with No. 12-seeded Oregon, 53-49, to advance to the Elite Eight for the second time in four seasons. The Cavaliers will battle No. 3-seeded Purdue at 8:49 p.m on Saturday as they try to reach their first Final Four since 1984. The Boilermakers took down South region No. 2 seed Tennessee in a thrilling, 99-94 overtime affair earlier Thursday evening, pushing Virginia's already late start back to 10:35 p.m.

Clark was one of the only 'Hoos that looked like the late start didn't affect him. The true freshman from California was 3 for 8 from downtown and scored 12 points to go along with six assists (two turnovers) and four rebounds, and he hit perhaps the biggest shot of the game. Louis King had just made a triple to put Oregon up 45-42. With the clock winding down to the five-minute mark, Clark sunk a 3 on the next possession to knot the score again, not allowing Oregon to come back down the floor with momentum, a cushion, and a quickly melting clock.

After an Oregon turnover, De'Andre Hunter's 3-pointer was blocked. Virginia forced a turnover on the other end, and then it was time for the Duke-game-from-last-year, cold-blooded-assassin version of Ty Jerome to step up. The junior from New York hit the backbreaking 3 Virginia fans were clamoring for with 3:33 left to give the Cavaliers their first lead since nine minutes remained, and UVa held on from there, getting multiple defensive stops and finally an easy bucket by Hunter under the basket with Oregon trapping and some free throws down the stretch to clinch a spot in the region final.

"Kihei found me in the right spot, and I think 'Dre or Mamadi set a great screen, and my teamamtes did a great job of finding me in the right spot," Jerome said in the postgame news conference.

Oregon's length, pressure, and tricky matchup zone created issues for the Cavaliers' offense all night, as it was unable to find a flow.

"They're tough defensively to figure out," Tony Bennett said. "We don't play against that a lot, and at times we struggled." 

Bennett opted to go with a very tight rotation. Braxton Key (seven minutes), Jack Salt (three minutes), and Jay Huff (one minute) barely played, and none of them scored or even got up a shot attempt. Clark played 37 minutes, Jerome, Hunter, and Kyle Guy 39 minutes each, and Mamadi Diakite was in for 35 minutes. Jerome led the way with 13 points, six assists (two turnovers), six rebounds, and two steals. Like Clark, he hit 3 of his 8 3s. Virginia hit nine overall, but took 33 attempts, continuing to shoot below 30 percent from beyond the arc for the tournament after being just below 40 percent during the rest of the season. Kyle Guy tried and tried to break out of his slump, and he did eventually hit two 3s in the second half -- his first pair at the KFC Yum! Center -- but he was still just 2 of 11 and is now 3 for 26 in the NCAA tournament. Guy contributed in other ways, as he often does, with 10 points, four boards, and an assist. There were a couple times where I thought he hoisted up a couple of quick long shots in frustration that I wish he hadn't, shots I'd want him to take if he was hot. But I do want him to keep shooting. We need him on his game, obviously, to keep advancing.

"It felt great [to hit the two 3s]," Guy said. "Anytime I can get Ty or Kihei an assist, I think they always appreciate it. I'm going to keep shooting. I dont feel like I'm ever out of rhythm. As long as my teammates have confidence in me, I'll continue to have confidence in myself."

Hunter finished with 11 points and seemed perplexed by Oregon all night, as the Ducks seemed to shade toward him in the zone and double him, or at least always hint at a possible double. He also recorded four rebounds and an assist. In my opinion, Hunter needed to either draw the double in and then quickly pass the ball, or take a shot right away before the double came. Instead, he seemed to hold the ball too long or dribble into trouble, and it didn't end up well for him usually.

Diakite did not reach the heights of his performance in the first two rounds (31 points, 18 boards combined), but the lanky junior was still solid, tallying seven points, a spectacular 11 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks, including a big one when he pinned Paul White's layup to the backboard with Virginia up 40-39. He did make one dumb move, getting assessed a technical foul with about 14 minutes left in the game after placing his forehead right up against Ehab Amin's after the two were battling for a rebound. Luckily, the referees charged both with technical fouls because Amin exchanged some words with Diakite and flopped. But Diakite has to keep his cool. There's just no way around it. A technical resulting in a free throw there, with UVa up 35-34, could've been a huge momentum swing, and it goes without saying every single point in this game was significant. Every player has to remain calm from this point forward. Period.

The game's flow through the first half was very much like the flow of the Oklahoma game. Virginia jumped out to a 7-3 lead, Oregon took a 16-10 edge, but UVa finished the half on a 20-6 run as it seemed to figure some things out on offense. The Cavaliers went into the break up 30-22. But the second half was nothing like the victory over the Sooners. In that contest Sunday, Virginia quickly got the lead to double digits, and Oklahoma could never cut the lead under 10 the rest of the way. Oregon, however, promptly got the lead down to three, before UVa extended it back to eight. But further separation never came, and eventually the score was 35-34 UVa at the 14:40 mark after a 3 by White. Oregon knocked down another 3, this one by King, with 10:53 left to make it 40-39. Neither team led by more than a possession from that point on until Hunter's layup with 27 seconds left in what was an extremely tense and back-and-forth closing stretch.

The defense was, of course, amazing against an Oregon team that had won 10 straight games and was shooting 20 of 40 from beyond the arc in the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers limited the Ducks to a 9-for-25 night from 3-point land, with King pacing the team with 16 points as he sunk 4 of his 8 attempts from deep, despite being hobbled by a bum ankle. White was 2 for 5 with 10 points, and Payton Pritchard was the Ducks' final double-figure scorer with 11 points, but the senior made just 3 of his 12 shots and was 1 of 6 from beyond the arc as Clark did a masterful job of hounding him all night.

"[Kihei] did a great job on a tremendous point guard in Payton and knocked down some timely shots," said Guy, who is friends with Pritchard. "And when he was going to the free throw line, I told him to ice it, this is what he came to Virginia for."

Virginia held Oregon to 37.8 percent shooting from the field and forced it into 11 turnovers. Oregon did not make a field goal over the contest's final five minutes. The war on the glass was tough, but UVa held a slight 34-31 rebounding advantage.

"[Coach Bennett] called an [offensive] set for us to run, but what matters is our defense," Jerome said the message was when the team called a timeout with just five minutes left. "That's what carried us all year, and that's what's going to take us as far as we wanna go."

The Cavaliers shot just 35.7 percent from the floor, but did handle Oregon's pressure pretty well, with just eight turnovers. There were several times when it looked like Oregon was able to speed up Virginia just a little, and I got a little nervous during some of the press breaks, but the players did a nice job of getting the ball across midcourt and then settling down. I was wondering if at some point in the second half Bennett would bring in Huff to try to change the look of the offense and give Oregon's defense something to think about. Fourteen minutes into the second frame, Virginia had scored just 12 points, and it finished the half with 23. But Huff never came in as Bennett rode the starters hard. Was it the right call? Well, UVa won, but Oregon could have just as easily hit the big 3 at the end of the game. Virginia showed its grit, though, as it has many times this season, and prevailed. It's going to take a better effort on Saturday night on offense, I think, for Virginia to advance.

"It was just kind of a slugfest, it felt like," Bennett said. "And it was sort of last-man standing."

But for now, UVa can savor a hard-fought win, and fans can enjoy a loaded slate of Friday games with the comfort of knowing their Wahoos are playing at least one more night.

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