Mired in a three-game losing streak for the first time in three years and playing on the road for the third time in four games, the Virginia basketball team knew it was close to winning in recent games, but not close enough. They straightened things out enough to grab a 63-58 victory at Georgia Tech on Saturday despite some late-game bobbles again.
UVA had a shot for the lead at Boston College in the final minute, a near buzzer-beating attempt against Syracuse at home, and a 3-point lead in the final three minutes at Florida State during its losing streak. Combinations of season-long issues with turnovers, shooting woes, and key defensive lapses left the Hoos on the short end of the stick, though. This time around, a couple of key jumpers and defensive plays were enough.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the coaches tried to keep the team focused on improving with a positive mindset during the recent skid.
“We work hard, we prepare,” Bennett said. “They say life and death is in the power of the tongue. You have to look at stuff and be real about where we are struggling but be positive. We were so close. In all three of those losses, we had chances to win. We haven’t learned how to win yet at a high level. Now today, we won. It wasn’t great and we faltered a little bit and the wheels were wobbling, but we won. This team, it’s all new to them, for the most part. I thought there were going to be some struggles. There is a level of expectation, rightly so or wrongly so, that this program has developed, and that’s a lot for guys who are in new experiences. It’s our job as a staff to keep coaching, keep encouraging, and not be too affected one way or the other.”
The Cavaliers came out of the gates strong to take leads of 2-0, 8-5, 16-11, and 25-21 over the first 15:35. They closed the half by adding to that lead, a reversal from late first-half struggles at FSU. Kihei Clark, Braxton Key, and Mamadi Diakite scored in the paint and Key added a jumper too to carry UVA into halftime with a 33-25 lead. Defensively, the visitors also flustered the Yellow Jackets into 13 turnovers in those first 20 minutes.
That momentum continued early in the second half as Virginia built a double-digit lead for much of the first 10 minutes after intermission. When Mamadi Diakite reeled off six straight points with two fastbreak dunks and a jumper, the lead had grown to 14 at 43-29. UVA had an 11-point lead at the under-12 minute media timeout as well.
Finishing the game off from there tested the Hoos’ growth and mettle.
Georgia Tech came out of that timeout with three straight buckets sandwiched around missed jumpers by the Cavaliers. The last of the trio was a dunk in transition by Evan Cole that brought the Yellow Jackets back within 48-43 while their fans roared. Even a Bennett timeout couldn’t stem the tide as UVA missed two more shots and Jose Alvarado canned a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 48-46 in span of 4:05.
This time, Virginia responded after the under 8 media timeout. Jay Huff knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key from a pick-and-pop play with Clark to stop GT’s 9-0 run. After the teams traded baskets and a string of misses – the final Tech miss courtesy of a key Diakite block at the rim – Huff came through again with another jumper from near the free throw line. Diakite answered a Georgia Tech bucket with a jumper of his own and the Cavaliers survived from there despite some missed free throws that could have put the win away more comfortably.
“First off, you have to give credit to Virginia,” Yellow Jackets coach Josh Pastner said. “They hit couple big shots. It’s 48-46 and Huff hits two big shots for them. Bottom line for the game is, we had 18 turnovers, 13 in the first half and five in the second half. We settled down in the second half. We got down 14, it was sort of like the Duke game, we got down and then we came roaring back, and we’ve done that all the time. That’s the difference and they had 11 offensive rebounds. They had 29 extra possessions in a sense.”
Huff finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 6 blocked shots. Diakite shook off 5 turnovers to post 17 points too along with 6 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Key added 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists, while Clark had 7 points and 7 assists with only 2 turnovers (he had none in the first 27 minutes). Tomas Woldetensae chipped in 9 points, all from 3-pointers, with 2 assists as well. Virginia shot 47.2% as a team, but managed just 50% on 8-of-16 shooting at the free throw line. The Hoos had 12 turnovers.
Georgia Tech countered with 20 points from Alvarado and 10 points from James Banks III, who also had 9 rebounds. Four other Yellow Jackets had 6 or 7 points each. The hosts actually shot 50% from the field, but also struggled at the free throw line at 33.3% (3-9). They had 18 turnovers to offset the shooting numbers.
With signs of improvement sprinkled throughout the victory, the focus shifts to consistency and continuing to tighten up the moments
“As I said to the guys, we played better,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to continue to play better and not totally eliminate, but cut down on the mistakes. We built a nice lead, but their defenses can confuse you at times. We executed for the most part, but there certainly were some lapses.”