Winning ACC openers. That’s what the Virginia men’s basketball program does under head coach Tony Bennett.
The year’s conference opener was a particularly challenging one, with No. 12 Virginia hitting the road to face a No. 6 Louisville squad coming off a home win over Kentucky. An undaunted Cavalier team took it to the Cardinals, though, and left the KFC Yum! Center with a 61-53 victory in what was the 2016/2017 ACC opener for both schools.
The Cavaliers (11-1, 1-0) improved to 8-0 in conference openers under Coach Bennett.
Virginia, which thoroughly outplayed Louisville for the first 30 minutes, pounced early, racing out to a 12-2 lead just four minutes in. A Jarred Reuter layup put the Cavaliers up 16-4 at the 12:36 mark of the first half. Louisville fought back, getting to within six at one point, and trailed by seven following a Tony Hicks layup with 3:09 remaining in the half.
The final three minutes of the first half, however, belonged to the Wahoos. True freshman guard Kyle Guy scored five points while redshirt freshman forward/center Mamadi Diakite added a steal and a dunk, sparking a 10-2 run that gave the visitors a comfortable 36-21 halftime lead. UVA extended its lead to 21 points on three separate occasions in the second half.
An ACC road win, especially against a top 10 team, is huge no matter how you can get it. Coach Bennett will have plenty of teaching moments, though, as a result of the way the Cavaliers played down the stretch Wednesday night. The Hoos scored only five points — one field goal and three free throws — and turned the ball over seven times in the final 10 minutes after scoring 56 points and yielding only seven turnovers the previous 30.
Virginia’s offensive struggles down the stretch gave the home team some life. A charging Louisville took possession with 3:10 remaining, having cut the Cavalier lead to nine points. UVA responded with some key plays in the next minute. First, it’s trademark defense held when Devon Hall rebounded an Anas Mahmoud missed jumper with 2:51 left. On the ensuing possession, the ever active Isaiah Wilkins scored a huge offensive board off a missed London Perrantes jumper, giving the Hoos another precious possession. Guy then capitalized by draining a contested jumper and pushing the Cavalier lead to 11 with 2:01 remaining.
A strong Cavalier defense coupled with poor shooting ultimately doomed the Rick Pitino-led Cardinals’ comeback effort. Louisville made just 2-of-14 3-pointers and 43.2% of its field goals. Meanwhile, Virginia forced 14 turnovers and outrebounded the Cardinals 31-26.
“I’m glad it was a 40-minute game in this one because we did not finish it strong or in the right way. But we did it the right way for the majority,” Bennett said.
Nine players scored for the Hoos. Hall, who Coach Bennett credited with having “a real nice game,” led Virginia with 10 points. The redshirt junior added six boards and two steals. Guy and Perrantes finished with nine points apiece. Perrantes accounted for seven of UVA’s 12 assists but also had five of the 14 turnovers, including four that came in the final 10 minutes. Diakite had eight points. Darius Thompson had seven. Reuter had six.
Guy and Diakite, part of the Virginia’s late first half surge, are becoming increasingly reliable late. There was Guy’s jumper, which was UVA’s first field goal in seven minutes and seven seconds. Diakite, who has hit key shots in previous wins against Providence and Cal, also drained two free throws with 27 seconds left to give the Hoos a 10-point lead.
“Kyle and Mamadi did a good job finishing at Cal and I thought they did a nice job,” Bennett said.
“You can see our young guys. They are still figuring it out, but they are coming,” Bennett said of his freshman group.
After back-to-back road wins over Cal and Louisville, Virginia heads back to John Paul Jones Arena on December 31 to face No. 20 Florida State. The Seminoles defeated Wake Forest at home Wednesday evening.
– Click here to view highlights of UVA’s win courtesy of ESPN.
– Click here to view Coach Bennett’s postgame comments on VirginiaSportsTV.
– Click here to view the full box score courtesy of VirginiaSports.com.