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Virginia Gains Valuable Experience in Holding Off Talented Vermont Squad

Game Highlights

Tuesday's game against Vermont at John Paul Jones Arena may have felt like a bunch of recently memorable NCAA tournament games Virginia has been involved in rolled up into one, but the result was the same as it has been in every game this season: a win, though the No. 7 Cavaliers really had to work for this one in holding off the upset-minded Catamounts, 61-55, on the strength of three players scoring in double figures, with Mamadi Diakite leading the way with 19 points.

Referencing the UMBC game should not bring on rage and depression in the hearts of Wahoos fans that much anymore. So I'll just say it. The beginning of this game reminded me of that one. How could it not? Vermont represents the America East, the same conference from which UMBC hails, and the Catamounts -- who entered 4-0 while being led by AE preseason player of the year Anthony Lamb -- looked similarly confident as they made their way to Charlottesville in a quest to "match" their conference brethren's accomplishment from the 2018 NCAA tournament.

Vermont took a 7-0 lead right out of the gate, also looking very much like Gardner-Webb in March, when the Runnin' Bulldogs grabbed a 16-point lead with under eight minutes left in the first half of that first-round matchup.

But then the 'Hoos began to assert control, and the contest seemed to settle into what we thought we'd see: a defensive struggle. You could probably say it looked like the Oregon NCAA tournament game in its grittiness. The Cavaliers beat the Ducks 53-49, but for a while, it looked like someone hitting the 50-point mark Tuesday was going to be a reach. In March, UVa tried to pull away from Oregon, but was unable to, and the Ducks took a lead in the second half. Similarly, against the Catamounts, the Cavaliers tried to extend the margin in the first half, but could not, never leading by more than 10. And like Oregon, Vermont did grab the lead in the second 20 minutes.

But it was what happened right at the end of the first half that signaled a change in the game's tone from rock fight to mini-shootout: Lamb made a buzzer-beating 3 to pull Vermont to within 24-18. It was a sign of things to come for the senior star.

In the second half, Virginia got off to a slow start again, and Vermont took advantage, taking a 28-26 lead on Lamb's second 3 with 14:20 left. He was not done. He proceeded to do his best Carsen Edwards imitation, sinking five more 3s, hitting them all before the 6:23 mark of the second half. Additionally, on one attempt, Lamb got fouled by Braxton Key and proceeded to make all three of his free throws. Tony Bennett said after the game Lamb reminded him of Louisville star Jordan Nwora.

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Or maybe fool me seven times," Bennett said after the game of Lamb's seven triples. "But he hit some great shots. He did. But I think two or three, we were like, 'Well, you're not gonna shoot that.' Well, yes you are. We have experience with guys doing that from unlimited range. ... That can be enough in a possession game for that to cost you. But we will learn and grow from it."

Virginia, which shot dreadfully from beyond the arc against Syracuse and JMU and then a bit better against Columbia, came to life from 3-point land itself, knocking down 5 of 11 in the second half. All of a sudden, this was looking like the Purdue NCAA tournament game with all of the back-and-forth action on offense.

Clark got the second-half 3-point barrage started by hitting one from Tyland to make it 29-28 UVa right after Vermont had taken the lead. Clark hit a similar shot in the second half that really answered the bell in the Oregon game, too, and he finished that game with three treys. How many did he make Tuesday? Also three (3 for 4) as he finished second on the team with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field, adding four assists (two turnovers) to his effort. Clark is just not afraid of big moments, which isn't shocking at all, given his pulse reading of "cool as a cucumber" when he delivered the assist for Diakite's game-tying shot in the Purdue game. His final 3 Tuesday was another long-distance bomb to make it 43-all, and then he made a driving left-handed layup over his defender later to make it 48-46 UVa.

"I've learned not to question [Clark] and what he can do," Bennett said. "I saw him in some remarkable situations as an inexperienced first-year in the biggest moments, step up and do a number of things when it was needed [in] high-pressure situations. ... He's so quick, he can put pressure on you off the ball screen, but if they go under, he's shown he can knock down the 3. That's what drew me to him when he was playing AAU ball."

As referenced above, Key fouled Lamb on a 3, and Lamb made him pay for it, giving Vermont its final lead after the three free throws, 49-48. Diakite followed with a layup off of a sweet Jay Huff assist at the 5:12 mark to put Virginia ahead for good. Down the stretch, in addition to some big shots, there were at least two defensive plays that stood out that ignited the victory. On Vermont's next possession, Diakite finally gained the upper hand on defense -- moving his feet beautifully -- and Lamb bumped into him and lost control of the ball out of bounds. Just seconds later, after Huff cleaned up a Casey Morsell miss around the rim, Morsell followed Diakite's example, moving his feet on the sideline and causing Robin Duncan to turn the ball over. The super effort from the true freshman drew a high-five from Bennett, who happened to be standing right next to Morsell.

Morsell continued to struggle offensively, hitting just one shot, as he went 0 for 3 from beyond the arc and 1 for 6 overall. But strong defense will keep him on the floor. For the second straight game, he didn't start, but he did play 28 minutes.

"Let's start defensively," Bennett said he told Morsell recently to help him get over his slow offensive start. "Be a defensive warrior for us. Be a defensive maniac. Play wild. Get on the floor, grab some rebounds, spread out. Find your identity in that, and offensively, just be sound, and take shots when they're there, and don't stress about it too much. ... I thought he tried really hard to be as good as he could defensively." 

What happened next, after Morsell's play? Key hit a big 3 to make it 55-49. Defense leading to offense, that's the Bennett way. Key finished 2 for 5 from beyond the arc and had 14 points -- UVa's third player in double figures -- and added six rebounds and four assists. Huff tallied nine points and seven boards.

Diakite and the Cavaliers eventually cooled off Lamb, but that Purdue-Edwards comparison? It's apt. After the game, Diakite said he was reminded of that outstanding performance. Diakite put on his big-boy pants on offense himself and had another excellent game, going 3 for 3 from beyond the arc and 8 of 15 from the field. It did not look like he was toeing the line on those 3s. With NBA scouts in attendance, Diakite made sure to show his range. Also, Diakite's first 3 was UVa's first basket of the game, and he had the team's first five points, which came at a crucial time with the 'Hoos off to the slow start. Additionally, he showed his work around the rim, at one point faking a 3, driving into the lane, and spinning around like a top before deftly making a basket. Remember how awkward Diakite used to look? That's no longer the case. His athleticism has been harnessed, and that's a major problem for Virginia's opponents. The fifth-year senior added six boards, perhaps a lower number than expected as Vermont battled Virginia on the glass admirably, falling just one rebound shy of the Wahoos' total, 30-29.

It wasn't as dramatic as overtime of the NCAA championship game, but just like against Texas Tech, UVa never looked back once it finally took control down the stretch. After Diakite got the lead back, Huff scored a couple of buckets, and Key hit his other big 3 as Virginia built the margin to eight. There was also another moment that reminded me of the Red Raiders game when officials ruled a ball out of bounds off of Diakite, but they went to replay to make sure it didn't touch Lamb's hand last. In the championship, a similar play happened when De'Andre Hunter seemingly knocked the ball out of bounds, but upon replay, the referees could see the ball go off of the fingertip of Davide Moretti. Virginia wasn't as lucky Tuesday as the refs didn't think they saw enough evidence to overturn the call, but it didn't end up mattering.

Tomas Woldetensae started for Kody Stattmann, who was sick, and he made just one shot. But the junior college transfer also recorded six rebounds, one of which he snatched away from a Vermont player, showing some nastiness. He also had a very nice assist to Huff in the first half.

Virginia finished the game with 10 turnovers, but just three came in the second half, a half in which UVa scored a season-high 37 points. The Cavaliers finished 8 for 23 (34.3 percent) from downtown, also a season high.

"Braxton showed maturity in the second half. He really was more poised. Kihei was terrific in the second half," Bennett said. "Jay and Mamadi made some plays. But we tried to spread it out at times, attack some ball screens, when they switched, we got a couple high-lows, and just tried to do what we do. It's a different deal; we are still spinning the wheel a little bit, saying, 'What's gonna stick? What can we do?' We found a couple things that I thought the guys played in space and took the right shots when they presented themselves."

Despite being the defending champions, these Wahoos, with many new pieces and players stepping into larger roles, are a work in progress. They are still learning to win. This was a valuable experience in a close game against a solid team that could be bound for the NCAA tournament. Indeed, this felt like a first-round March Madness contest.

"I just want those guys to be as sound as they can in those spots they haven't been in," Bennett said. "They don't have to be heroes. I said, 'You don't have to be great, just be good and solid.' To handle the situation the way we did, make some shots, get some stops ... I think it was important for this team to experience and have success in."

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