Mr. Jones received the last ball from U-Hall when CavMan lowered from the ceiling.
When Virginia first envisioned a new shining home for its basketball teams, nights like this were part of the dreams. The John Paul Jones Arena filled to the brim, Hoos with bright smiles in bright orange. A team willing to put everything it has on the line in front of a crowd waiting to adore their efforts. A top 10 opponent falling by the wayside.
Yes, Virginia there is a new Cavalier castle and the Hoos delivered a rousing first win with a 93-90 victory over No. 10 Arizona on Sunday night.
“Well, it was exciting opening up the arena – excitement with the announcer, Earth, Wind, and Fire the night before. It was a storybook ending kind of,” Sean Singletary said. “We just played our hearts out, and I give a lot of credit to Arizona. They are one of the best teams in the country and we played them to the wire – we just came out with three more points.”
In all likelihood, no one expected it to come in this fashion though. The Hoos trailed by as many as 19. Star guard J.R. Reynolds wasn’t expected to play after suffering an injury to his right eye near the end of Thursday’s practice. Reynolds didn’t start for the first time in 32 games.
The Wildcats shot 50% in the first half and 47% for the game. Every time it needed a big shot for the first 30 minutes or more, Arizona seemed to knock one down. The visitors came out calm, like the atmosphere didn’t phase them and they pounded Virginia on the glass for much of the first half.
Still, the Cavaliers persevered and battled. After halftime, they outscored the visitors 57-41. They won the second-half rebounding battle. They held the Wildcats to 42.9% shooting after intermission and came up with big stops in critical moments down the stretch. In many ways, the Hoos displayed the traits that Dave Leitao expected his program to embody. That’s probably why he had a fatherly grin on his face during the postgame press conference.
“On a night like this, I couldn’t be any prouder to be the coach of this basketball program and the guys that are in it,” Leitao said. “Believe it or not, it’s been a very trying few days, just trying to focus in on the game in what was an event. It’s hard to keep the guys focused, particularly because we went through so many things from an adversity standpoint physically.”
Mamadi Diane poured in a career-high 25 points for the Hoos in the win.
“After halftime, you can talk about Mo and Jason responding, J.R. toughing it out,” Leitao said. “Sean’s got cramps, and he turns it up to a higher level than I’d seen him play before in terms of speed and just making things happen.”
Indeed, the Virginia veterans responded to the bright spotlights of opening night in the John Paul palace.
Reynolds gutted his way to 10 points, extending his streak of consecutive double figure scoring games to 25. Remarkably, he played 21 minutes when he wasn’t even expected to play until the waning minutes before the game’s scheduled start.
Jason Cain ripped down 12 rebounds, the only player on either team to hit double figures in that category. He added 13 points, 2 steals, 1 block, and 1 assist in 34 minutes of action. At times, he was the only true post player on the floor after Laurynas Mikalauskas fouled out in the second half.
Mamadi Diane and Singletary tied for game-high scoring honors with 25 each. Both also had solid overall games as well – Diane posted 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and just 2 turnovers while Singletary added 6 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and just 1 turnover.
Sean Singletary ‘s first dunk at UVa helped spark the Cavaliers’ second-half rally.
At times, those players were pulling of feats that drew jaw-dropping responses. Diane hit a floater on the baseline with 55 seconds to play on an assist from Singletary. Diane even kissed a 3-pointer off the glass as he finished 8 of 9 from the floor and 5 of 6 from 3-point range. Singletary, meanwhile, snared two defensive rebounds with his head near the rim and he dunked for the first time in his career after he made a steal near halfcourt.
Both players were big conversation pieces after the game.
“Playing 37 minutes and cramping up and only turning the ball over once – it speaks to who he is,” Leitao said.
“Diane is a good player. We know that he could shoot. He’s a good athlete. Five of 6 from the 3-point line – you don’t expect that he’s that good a shooter,” Arizona’s Lute Olson said. “Singletary is very, very quick. He makes a lot of things happen with that team because he can shoot it outside. What really hurts you is his ability to get the ball to the basket – when that happens there are going to be some people open.”
“He means a lot. Without him, I don’ think they’d be the team that they are. He gets it and goes,” Wildcat guard Jawann McClellan said of Singletary. “You can tell at the end when they were icing the clock, even when they hit the baby jumper at the end, it’s because of his creation. He’s a good player; he’s undersized but he has a shot at the line and a lot of people don’t have that. He showed that tonight.”
And the Hoos showed that their new home is where the heart will be.
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