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Hoos Overtake Gritty Navy

Game Highlights

When Virginia pulled the ball out of the net on Alec Loehr's second free throw with 36 seconds left in the half and ran it down the court, they didn't do as you might expect and sit on the ball until the shot clock bled into single digits. They went right into their attack and got Jay Huff that golden ticket - an open look from the top of the arc. When it kissed the net with 23 seconds left to give the Hoos 37 points, I thought to myself, "They scored too fast." Navy had been taking the ball at the Cavaliers, racking up 26 points unexpected from the #291 offense in the land against the #1 defense. When Luke Loehr went up for a layup with 2 seconds to go and Jay Huff sent that shit into the stands, I thought the danger was averted.

Nope.

The same Luke Loehr caught a cross-court pass from a penetrating Cam Davis and lofted a long shot over the out-stretched arms of a late closing Mamadi Diakite that dropped through the net after the buzzer, and yet another UVA opponent had nailed yet another halftime buzzer-beating three. The closing sequence buoyed the Naval Academy's morale as they charged into the locker room to regroup.

Regroup they did. They came out of the locker room and took the fight right to the heart of the Virginia defense, getting it into the lane to their center Evan Weick, who used all of his 6 feet 8 inches and 240 pounds to bully Diakite for three straight baskets. Suddenly it was 37-35 and the Cavaliers were reeling. Senior leader Braxton Key "got on Mamadi a little bit earlier. I thought he could have done a better job guarding [Weick] 1-on-1, and I let him know that."

Diakite steadied things for a moment with an open three pointer that made it 40-35 with over 16 minutes to go, but Navy kept coming. On defense they swarmed the Cavaliers into 5 turnovers and lulled them into missing 6 consecutive shots with a packed-in zone that made it difficult for Virginia to do anything but pass the ball around the perimeter. On the other end, they switched to bombing away from long range, dropping two bombs during Virginia's seven-and-a-half minute stretch of futility. John Carter, Jr.'s shot gave Navy the lead at 41-40, and the Cavaliers looked defeated as they trudged to the bench for a time out.

Whatever their leader Tony Bennett said to the troops worked, because the Cavaliers came out with renewed life and took the fight to the Midshipmen. The defense stiffened and when Jay Huff grabbed a rebound and passed it to Kihei Clark, the point guard charged down the court, pulling up just inside the free throw line for an uncontested jumper that wrested the lead back, 42-41. Braxton Key kept that lead with a blocked shot, Clark scooped up the rebound and immediately counterattacked, finding Key streaking down the left side. Braxton gathered the ball and cut to the hoop for the fast break layup. Cam Davis ineffectually swiped at Key on the way by, committing the dumbest foul in basketball. Braxton calmly sank the free throw and suddenly the Hoos were up 45-41.

Keyhei were not done, however. When Huff spiked a Navy layup attempt into the floor, Braxton picked it up and launched yet another fast break (HOO ARE THESE GUYS?). After a couple dribbles to clear traffic, he found Kihei and ran the wing. Kihei attacked the lane, drew the defender, and launched a lob that I thought was going to sail out of bounds. But Braxton leapt up and with one hand seized that ball and slammed it through the hoop.

In just a few ticks over a minute, the Virginia Cavaliers had executed three consecutive fast breaks and scattered Navy's formation for a 7-0 run and 47-41 lead. The John Paul Jones Arena had come to life now that their men had begun to fight. But the Cavaliers were not yet done with their assault. After a Navy time out that failed to settle the crowd, the Hoos forced a bad shot at the end of the shot clock, came down and penetrated the zone for a Threehei Kihei buzzer beater ("I knew he beat" the clock, Huff said later while Threehei sat there with canary feathers in the corner of his mouth). Then Key stole the ball away from Navy guard John Summers, Huff picked it up and started the fast break, dribbling to the middle of the floor and hitting Key. Freshman Casey Morsell dashed down the right slot and Key found him for a layup.

Suddenly, after four transition baskets in two-and-a-half minutes, the Cavaliers had turned the tide of battle with a 12-0 run, restoring that 11-point lead they had just seconds before the halftime buzzer.

But as befits a service academy, Navy did not surrender. If this game is any indication of the character of our naval personnel, this nation's security is in good hands. Cam Davis hit the last of his four three-pointers, then after Tomas Woldetensae committed the last of Virginia's six second-half turnovers, Davis found Luke Loehr for a three. Next time down, Weick bullied his way to the basket and was fouled by Woldetensae. His free throws made it 54-49, and the Cavaliers were once again wavering.

This time it was the other senior, Diakite, who steadied his mates. He took the ball directly at Weick in the lane and was fouled. He hit both free throws, then after a stop, cut to the hoop on a Kihei Clark penetration and slammed the pass into the basket. Lead back to 9 with less than three minutes to play. It was Morsell who clinched the victory with a corner three off the last of Clark's 13 assists.

It was far more difficult than it should have been, and almost losing to a bad Navy team does not foreshadow good things in the ACC, but the game also highlighted some things that could lead to a brighter future. Getting Key back and returning to full strength is huge, as he adds fiber and leadership to the team. "I just keep challenging him to be as great as he can defensively, all over the glass, and then keep finding ways to be effective offensively," Bennett said of Key after the game. "He steadies us as much as we can be steadied at times." Kihei played more like last year's Mong00se, defending and protecting the ball. He was judicious with his penetration, keeping his dribble alive when no early pass or shot opportunity presented itself. He only had two turnovers and shot 50% from both two- and three-point range.

It was against the 183rd-rated defense in Kenpom, but the shooting was vastly improved, and continued a trend of better three-point shooting. The Hoos hit 42% of their threes (8/19) and 61% of their two-point attempts. That makes four consecutive games of making at least 30% of threes, after a start that had the team averaging under 25%. Woldetensae has doubled his percentage over the last four games, in which he has gone 8/19 from the arc. His floor game sagged a bit but he went 2-4 from the arc and provided 8 early points. Clark quietly has raised his 3FG% to 37%, going 5/11 over the last three games. Even Morsell, whose struggles have been the most trying, hit more than one three and 33% for the first time, going 2-6. His game seemed to pick up after that fast break layup, as he followed that with a three and a pair of free throws in the 1-and-1, giving him 10 points for the game. It was the second double-digit output and 100+ OE on the season.

But the most glaring change was in the offensive tempo. Just as I noticed it from the stands, one of the reporters noticed Kihei pushing the ball into the offensive zone on a run instead of walking it up as we have come to expect from Virginia point guards. The reporter asked Bennett about it after the game:

"Trying to get down the floor, get into offense ... we worked on that. If you have something early, great, and if you don't, you have a little more time to loosen up the defense," Bennett responded. And on most halfcourt possessions they didn't have something early, but when they pushed the ball off of a defensive rebound or a steal, good things happened. Although the first fast break was what we are used to seeing from this group when Key let a perfect pass dribble off his fingertips and out of bounds, the second half run that took control of the game was all in transition. The fast break layup for Morsell seemed to help his flow, and the aggressiveness of pushing the ball might have positively impacted the team's mindset. Other than the first ten minutes of the second half when their defense was letting them down, the Hoos scored at a blistering 2 points-per-minute rate - including an un-Virginia-like 11 fast break points.

So just two weeks after I went on the podcast and said I couldn't see Tony Bennett devoting practice time to the fast break, there was Coach Bennett telling us that he had indeed devoted practice time to pushing the ball in transition. He once again showed a tactical flexibility of which we tend not to think he is capable - unfairly, as his constant tactical adjustments fly under the radar of his unflinching dedication to his core principles. Bennett clearly came to the same conclusion as Jordan Sperber, that pushing the tempo and seeking transition opportunities might help the foundering offense. As the team heads into the ACC schedule, some aggressiveness in the offense will be required to get wins. As ugly as the season has looked, the Hoos are still 10-2, 2-0 in the ACC with wins over teams expected to be in the upper half of the league. Another NCAA Tournament appearance, and even another ACC Regular Season Championship, are still on the table for this team to grab. The team retains its faith in each other, a faith we would do well to share:

Kihei: Anybody can get a shot. I don't think it matters who takes the shot. We just take what the defense gives us. We share the ball well, so whoever takes the shot, we have confidence when he takes it.

Jay: That's what's good about this team. Similar to last year, we have faith in a lot of guys to put in a bucket. We have guys that can shoot. I know that some guys have been struggling at times, but we have absolute faith that they can make a shot when they need to.

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