It may not have the longevity of the Macy’s parade, but it’s becoming quite the Thanksgiving tradition for the Virginia basketball team nonetheless. The Hoos won their seventh straight November tournament title this weekend with a pair of wins in Connecticut.
UVA defeated Massachusetts on Saturday, 58-46, and backed that up with a win against Arizona State on Sunday, 48-45. That pair of victories delivered the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off Championship trophy. Over the previous six seasons, the Cavaliers also captured the titles at the Emerald Coast Classic, Charleston Classic, Barclays Center Classic, Corpus Christi Challenge, NIT Season Tip-Off, and Battle 4 Atlantis.
By holding both the Minutemen and the Sun Devils short of 50 points, the Cavaliers now have held all but one opponent this season under that threshold. The Hoos haven’t lit up the scoreboard either, but that remains a sign that the program’s calling card is still strong as players get used to new roles this season.
“It’s always a battle of wills and styles,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after the Arizona State game according to The Associated Press. “We’ll keep trying to become more efficient offensively, but we can never give ground defensively. That’s our statement.”
In the championship contest, the Wahoos needed a second-half rally to take down the Sun Devils. ASU erased a 10-point deficit just before the half and quickly turned that into a 19-0 surge that bridged intermission. With that push, State took a 35-26 lead while Virginia floundered on the offensive end. UVA’s scoreless drought during that outburst reached 9:43, including the first 6:50 of the second half.
Braxton Key finally broke the drought with a bucket, but the Cavalier comeback didn’t start in earnest for two more minutes as the deficit hovered in the six- to eight-point range. With just under 11 minutes remaining, however, Virginia started to reel in the Sun Devils. A combination of heightened intensity on defense and just enough offense allowed the Hoos to close the game with an 18-7 advantaged in the final 11 minutes. That included a scoreless stretch of 7:04 for State.
Mamadi Diakite started the winning stretch with a jumper that helped him put together 9 points in those 11 minutes. He closed the winning stretch with a blocked shot on a designed look where he slid off the screener and got a piece of the shot attempt by Rob Edwards. Diakite finished with 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 1 assist, and 1 steal.
“I felt like the shot we ended up getting wasn’t the best shot in the world,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said according to the The Associated Press. “We wanted to try and get Rob a look and they did a good job on stepping out on that last screen.”
While the senior leader stepped forward during the decisive moments, he got some help from someone on the other end of the career spectrum in Casey Morsell. Both Diakite and Morsell made the all-tourney team. The true freshman made Virginia’s final two baskets to help seal the win. First, he hit a pull-up jumper near the left elbow for a 45-43 lead with 2:12 to go. Then after Edwards tied the game for Arizona State, Morsell drained a 3-pointer from well behind the line with 1:02 remaining to set the final score at 48-45 after Diakite’s blocked shot and a final possession miss by the Sun Devils.
Morsell’s sixth college game was certainly his best one offensively. He registered a career-high 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including the game-winning jumper. He also made all four of his free throw attempts and added 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 steals for good measure. Entering the title game against ASU, Morsell had posted just 12 points on 5-of-36 shooting in the season’s first five games. He reportedly showed better offensively in closed door scrimmages with VCU and Georgetown, but his official breakout game came when the Hoos needed it most.
“Casey really came of age,” Bennett said according to The Associated Press. “He made some tough shots.”
When Diakite and Morsell combined for 34 of the team’s 48 points Sunday, it represented a flip from the previous game against UMass. In that win, the same duo combined for just 9 points. The heavy lifting in the scoring column came from elsewhere against the Minutemen.
Key led the Cavaliers with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting in that one. He scored the first 6 points of the game for the Hoos and helped pick up the production overall when Diakite picked up two fouls in the first half and sat on the bench. Key ended with 7 rebounds and 3 steals too, which pushed him to 15 rebounds in the two games after he led the way with 8 against Arizona State.
Jay Huff also chipped in with solid production while Diakite sat. That included a flurry of eight straight points near the midway point of the first half. He finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds in that victory. Huff also had 15 rebounds combined in the two weekend games.
While that duo took care of most of the frontcourt scoring, Kihei Clark and Tomas Woldetensae led the way in the backcourt against UMass. Clark tallied 14 points on the strength of an 8-8 day at the free throw line and added 6 assists with 5 rebounds too. Woldetensae scored 9 points in the win.
The up-and-down scoring stats from the weekend and really the season’s first six games leave a lot of room for growth in the weeks ahead. Still, the bedrock defense has made sure those growing pains aren’t turning into losses. The Cavaliers have started 6-0 for the fourth straight season and will bring a Thanksgiving trophy back to the JPJ for the seventh straight year too.
“We know we can be in any game with any team,” Key said after the UMass game according to The Associated Press. “We haven’t found our rhythm yet shooting the ball this year. I don’t think we’ve had a game where we shot the ball really well. But we’re going to keep digging and keep playing defense really and we’ll figure it out.”