For the fourth straight season, Virginia basketball fans can be thankful for an undefeated basketball team at the Thanksgiving dinner table. The Cavaliers made sure of that with their latest win, a 46-26 decision at the John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday that secured a 7-0 start for the fourth straight season.
This victory likely won’t make the list for a holiday rewatch, though.
“Obviously we were shorthanded, but there were some opportunities out there for guys,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “I like the effort of Chase [Coleman] and Jayden [Nixon], our walk-ons. They came in and they fought, and even for a little bit, Papi [Francisco Caffaro] was in there and fought. Can’t say that about everybody, but there was, you know, we just got to keep finding some more ways to challenge ourselves with effort and continue to, you know, work on our shooting.”
Supporting evidence for Bennett’s frustrations can be found in the stats. The Cavaliers, playing without Braxton Key (wrist surgery) and Kody Stattmann (illness), shot just 38.6% (17-44) for the game. They committed 13 turnovers against a packed-in Maine defense and lost the rebounding battle for the first time this season (32-27). That latter stat included allowing 11 offensive rebounds off of 35 missed shots by the Bears.
There were appeared to be some rotation, communication, and scramble possessions defensively that likely stuck in Bennett’s craw in addition to the rebounding numbers when it comes to effort. Maine, for example, missed at least two back-screen lob openings with inaccurate passes and misfired on numerous open 3-pointers without even a late contest offered.
“Yeah, I mean, Maine struggled too obviously, but you have to do that. You have to figure out, ‘Okay, if ever there’s a team that has to be hungry to defend no matter how hard it is – and that’s where the heart and the effort comes in – hungry to rebound, and to be kind of a hard rock when you’re in a stance and beat screens, it’s us.’ We have to. That’s right now what is our chance, and it’s going to be important.”
The defensive hiccups didn’t show up statistically, though. The Black Bears struggled mightily in the loss. No one reached double figures and only four players even made a shot. They shot just 18.6% (8-43) and committed 21 turnovers. That shooting percentage is the second lowest all-time for a Cavalier opponent and the 26 points scored matches the fewest allowed by UVA in the shot clock era (since 1986). Virginia forced three shot clock violations.
It’s the third time this season that an opponent didn’t reach 40 points on the scoreboard.
“I mean, it was great,” Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite said. “At halftime, Mike Curtis said he didn’t want us to let that team get to 30 and there would be some consequences to it. So, not wanting to do more stuff later on this week, I challenged the guys to get down and make sure the other team doesn’t get anything – they only get the best out of us.”
“We take great pride in that,” UVA’s Jay Huff said. “Coach Curtis challenged us at half to not let this team score 30. I think we were thinking about that as the clock dwindled down to … four minutes when they had 26 points and it stayed that way for the rest of the time … We were kind of constantly just thinking about it in the back of our minds.”
The duo of Diakite and Huff provided much of the offensive production for the Hoos. Diakite posted 15 points and 7 rebounds, while making 1 of 2 3-pointers on the day. Diakite’s day included a steal and slam in the first half and a trailing dunk courtesy of Kihei Clark in the second half. Clark chipped in 9 points on 3-of-4 3-point shooting. He added 5 assists and 3 steals. Diakite did commit 3 turnovers as Maine swarmed around him any time he touched the ball around the lane.
Huff, meanwhile, entered the starting line-up in Key’s absence and got off to a fast start. He ended up with 13 points and 5 rebounds, while making 1 of 4 3-pointers on the day. That triple came at the start of the game when Huff scored his team’s first seven points.
With Key out, the other members of the experienced quartet needed to carry the team through a day where others struggled again offensively and effort issues were bothersome to the coaching staff. Casey Morsell made just 1 of 8 shots and Tomas Woldetensae hit just 1 of 5 as starters; Justin McKoy missed his only shot attempt on a layup. The shooting woes – UVA entered the day ranked 244th nationally in shooting percentage (40.8%) and 343rd in 3-point shooting percentage (23.7%) – have now extended through seven games and that could become even more of a challenge for the team with big tests coming up at Purdue and against North Carolina at home.
“I know that’s obviously a big eyesore,” Bennett said. “Guys are hesitant at times and uncertain, but hopefully as we get healthier we’ll be better, but the competition certainly will step up and that will reveal even more.”