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Virginia Sends Mamadi, Braxton Out in Style, Gets Back to Frustrating Mack, Louisville

Neither team had made a shot in more than four minutes. The result still hung in the balance, with Virginia clinging to a 52-51 lead over Louisville with 51 seconds left.

In a flash, Kihei Clark rose up and drove a dagger through the Cardinals' hearts. The little man made another big shot.

"I can't say enough about what he's got going on inside here," Tony Bennett said after the game, pointing at his heart. "... That was a clutch shot."

Clark scored 18 points, including that game-sealing 3-pointer, and Mamadi Diakite notched 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in his final home game as No. 22 Virginia topped No. 10 Louisville 57-54 on Saturday to send out its pair of seniors with a victory and grab the No. 2 seed away from the Cardinals heading into the ACC tournament this week in Greensboro.

"Kihei is the heart of the team, but people don't realize that," Diakite said. "Sometimes I go online and see some comments. It's whatever, everyone can think what they want to think. But we know how valuable the kid is to us. He does some unbelievable things. He's still young. People don't understand that. He's a second-year and yet, they want to hold him to a higher standard, like a redshirt senior. But that's a good thing I guess. That's a good pressure. The better you get, the more pressure you have, you just keep taking challenges."  

The streaking Cavaliers won their last eight games of the regular season by an amazing 3.6 points per game and 11 of their last 12. Only one of the 11 wins came by more than seven, the 78-65 victory against Boston College.

Jay Huff recorded 11 points (1 of 2 on 3-pointers), five boards, and two blocks. Braxton Key had six points, seven rebounds, and four assists in his last game at John Paul Jones Arena.

After Virginia (23-7, 15-5) led in the opening minutes, Louisville (24-7, 15-5) got out in front 16-8 with the help of four consecutive made 3-pointers. But in the latter stages of the first half, UVa made a charge to take a 31-24 edge at the break. Virginia was already starting to play a bit better, but one of the turning points happened when, at 20-15, Huff slammed home an alley-oop plus the foul (and a staredown from Huff) to make it 20-17. He missed the free throw, but the Cardinals were called for a lane violation. Coach Chris Mack took offense to the call and must have said something inappropriate, because the referees T'ed him up, Clark made the two technical shots, then Huff stepped back up to the line and sunk the free throw on his second try. In one fell swoop, the game went from 20-15 Louisville to 20-all, and JPJ was whipped into a frenzy.

Diakite's senior day stat line included a number of nice moves down low, where the fifth-year senior showed off his quickness, length, and footwork. On one play, he missed a shot, got his own rebound, regathered himself, showed patience, and then scored.

In the second half, Virginia built the lead up to as many as 14 points, 43-29, but in the final 10 minutes, Louisville went to a small lineup and rallied.

The Cardinals drew even at 51 on a 3 by Darius Perry with 5:12 left. It was their fourth straight made trey, just like in the first half.

It's become so natural for the Cavaliers to thrive in these situations this season. An incredible 12 of their 15 conference victories have come by one- to nine-point margins, and eight by three or fewer points.

"We get down to that point, and it doesn't really seem to phase us that much," Huff said. "There was a point last game [against Miami] where me and Braxton kinda looked at each other like, 'We've been here about 20 times this season.'"

Virginia decided to get Huff back on the floor for some scoring potential.

“They went small and started switching [screens]," Bennett said. "We had a decision to make; we didn't have the matchups defensively, but I wanted to get Jay [Huff] on the floor for rebounds, post-ups. It was hard matchups, but they actually did OK."

Offense was a struggle for both sides after that point. Both teams had three chances to take the lead and came up empty. Diakite finally snapped the drought by making 1 of 2 at the line with 1:48 remaining. Ryan McMahon missed a tough floater-layup, and the next time down, Steven Enoch was blocked under the basket by several players, with Huff eventually taking the ball away. I don't think anyone would've been surprised had a foul been called there, but the referees swallowed their whistles.

"To leave that lineup on the floor, I don't even think that would've crossed my mind the last two and a half years," Bennett said. "But [Huff's] working, and he was active, and just what he gives us with his skill, his offense, and his shot-blocking. I like his maturation."

After those misses, there was still 51 seconds left, and Clark took the game into his hands, delivering the gut-punch 3 with 28 seconds on the clock to essentially lock up the victory. It was his second 3 of the day (2 for 3) and was reminiscent of Ty Jerome's 3-pointer at Duke two years ago that put the Cavaliers up 63-58 with 39 seconds remaining. Stone-cold killer treys. Like Jerome, Clark has ice-cold water in his veins and shows no mercy.

"Kids these days," Huff quipped after the game, as he patted Clark's shoulder and said, "you're only a second-year."

"I'm always confident," Clark said, noting there was nothing special about the play. He just said he took what the defense gave him, adding that David Johnson was really sagging off of him, worried about the drive. "My teammates allow me to be confident, and I know they trust me to make the play, whether it's a pass or a shot. So I'm just going out there and just trying to do my job and make the play." 

Louisville went 9 of 25 from beyond the arc, making the same number of 3s it converted at home against UVa, but overall, the Cardinals shot 37.3 percent at JPJ while they shot 51 percent in the first matchup at the KFC Yum! Center. After tying it, they missed four consecutive 3s before making a meaningless one with 0.3 seconds on the clock. Jordan Nwora made four 3s and paced Louisville with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Enoch tallied 11 points, all in the first half, and McMahon had nine.

"I thought our ball pressure was really good today," Bennett said of limiting Enoch in the second half and also the overall defensive performance. "We were active on the ball, and we trapped at times to make it hard for [Enoch]. Kinda tried to scramble and cover out of it and get to shooters quick. Kihei was the point of attack with his on-ball defense. ... If you give Nwora a little sliver, boom, it's off. And he shoots it so quick. He was 6 of 17, yes 4 of 9 [on 3s], but I thought we made him earn, and that's maybe as good as we could do for the majority of the game."

Virginia went just 4 of 14 from beyond the arc and shot 41.3 percent overall. Louisville was 7 of 9 at the free line, and UVa went 15 of 20. The rebounding battle was even, but the 'Hoos had just nine turnovers (Clark had two), with the Cardinals scoring five points off of them, while they recorded 12 turnovers, with the Cavaliers turning them into 16 points.

Tomas Woldetensae was credited with four steals and made one 3 (1 of 5) when he made a nice move to shake loose from McMahon. McMahon was also abused on another play when Clark backed him down and put a turnaround jumper over him in the lane. (McMahon is only 6-foot tall himself.)

"That made me smile," Bennett said. "[Clark] kept his composure in there, then he created some space, and we'll see if he's gonna put out a teaching video on post moves or not, but that was pretty nice."

"I kinda just tried to make a move, and yeah, I guess it's in my repertoire now," Clark said with a chuckle. 

Casey Morsell converted a layup to round out Virginia's scoring. He also had a fantastic moment in the first half defensively staying in front of Lamarr Kimble, drawing a shot clock violation. Morsell reminded me of Malcolm Brogdon on that play.

The game flow was similar to the teams' first meeting, which Louisville won 80-73, just in reverse. This time, it was Virginia that blew a double-digit lead before eventually pulling out the win.

Virginia will face No. 7 seed Notre Dame or No. 10 seed Boston College on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.

Even though the Cavaliers didn't get the help they needed from Boston College to share the regular-season title with Florida State, Bennett said he was proud of his group, and the seniors specifically.

“I kind of thanked [the seniors] for what they’ve meant to this program yesterday before practice and after practice," Bennett said. "I said, 'As much as I'd love it if [Boston College] could get [a win] and you can get a share of the ACC title, that doesn't take away from what just transpired in terms of the effort you put out there, how you play and what you've done this year, and for your careers here.' To start with Braxton, terrific. For him to make that decision to come here [and transfer from Alabama], he was patient last year, and in big moments did some big things for us. Then Mamadi, for five years he has been here. Just thinking of that and watching him mature and seeing how joyful he is, emotional, and you could just see he did not want to be denied. Very thankful that they got to end the regular season that way, but [there's] so much more left." I'll add "hopefully" to that final phrase.

Reflecting on his senior day, Diakite was nostalgic and dropped a famous UVa name but also was thinking of making a long March run.

"First, I just wanna thank the Wahoo fans -- they've done a great job throughout the whole season and throughout my whole career -- the staff, too, my teammates. It's been changing a lot from my first year to now. I can't believe I played with Malcolm [Brogdon in 2015-16]," he said with a laugh. "... I'm seeing the big picture. I'm trying to go as far as this team can go. We're trying to go together and write history. When you do it one time, to people, it's always over. It's not over. It's more pressure than the year before, but you have to do more, more in order to get there. So we know what's ahead of us. We're not done. That was win -- we're happy about it. But we need to turn the page and focus on the next game."

On Jan. 20, Virginia was edged at home by N.C. State to fall to 12-6 and 4-4 in the conference. UVa had lost four of five. Each of those four defeats came in close games, so realistically, the team was just a handful of points away from turning each of those setbacks into victories. That's been proven out down the stetch run of this season, with the ridiculously tight nature of the contests in this winning streak. However, then it really did feel like this team was maybe headed to the NIT. Now, the 'Hoos are solidly in the NCAA tournament field with a chance to boost their seed line even more in Greensboro.

"That [rough patch] kinda gave us the kick in the pants that we needed," Huff said. "I think that last year was last year. Obviously, it was a great season. Obviously, that's the standard we wanna set, but at the same time, I think that we knew we had to do this because we wanted to, not just because people before us have."

"I don't think that's our best basketball game yet, but it was a really good one," Diakite said when he was told Mack said UVa was playing its best basketball of the season. "We needed this. But we're gonna keep evolving, no matter what. Job is not done."