The Virginia and Louisville basketball teams traded halves of sizzling 3-point shooting on Saturday, but in the end the Cardinals had a little more firepower inside the arc and at the free throw line. That provided enough margin to break a tie in the final three minutes as No. 5 Louisville pulled out an 80-73 win at the Yum! Center.
That outcome snapped a nine-game winning streak for the Cavaliers in the series and kept the Cardinals alone in first place in the ACC standings.
“Our message before the game was leave this place a better team when we leave,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “You want to leave it better than you found it in a way but leave this place a better team. So I don’t know if that means you’re going to win. Who can say that, you sit there and look at these guys before the game ‘We’re winning this one’ but I say to just leave it a better team and I think we did that today. There’s still things that we can improve but you saw a great environment for college basketball. We took a step in defeat. I can handle being beat. I just don’t like losing, and we didn’t lose today.”
While the game eventually went down to the wire, it looked like UVA might lose the game quickly in the early going. That’s because Louisville came out of the gates locked in from 3-point range. The hosts made 5 triples to take a 15-9 lead before the first media timeout even arrived and eventually made 6 of their first 7 treys for an 18-11 advantage. Darius Perry made three of those shots, while Jordan Nwora added three of his own too.
The Wahoos hung around on the scoreboard for a long time despite that fast start thanks to some solid offense of their own (52% shooting in the first half), but the Cards added two more 3-pointers before the end of the half and the lead ballooned to 44-30 by intermission. That marked the most points allowed in the first half by UVA since the debacle at Tennessee back in 2013 when those Cavaliers gave up 48 in the opening half.
The Cardinals made 8 of 15 3-pointers in the first half, a 53.33% clip.
“First to start the game, they shot lights out and we didn’t,” Bennett said. “We knew they could shoot, but you have to trust the defense behind you and try to pressure the ball so, I thought we adjusted well. … It’s just one of those games where it didn’t look good early because of how they were shooting. But, our guys hung in there and again, usually our defense keeps us in there, well this time, our offense had to kind of keep us in there, and Louisville’s a very good team obviously. You can see that.”
Virginia’s offense actually duplicated the Louisville script in the second half.
After Mamadi Diakite opened the second half with a bucket, Tomas Woldetensae and Kihei Clark followed with back-to-back 3-pointers. That was a sign of things to come.
Woldetensae sandwiched three more 3-pointers around a Clark layup as the Cavaliers climbed within 5 points just inside of eight minutes to go. At the 5:11 mark, Clark hit a trey to get the visitors back within one possession once again and Woldetensae added another one less than a minute later to cut what was a 14-point halftime deficit to a single point. When he got another look with 3:32 remaining, he connected yet again from behind the arc for a 68-68 tie. That was followed immediately by a technical foul on Louisville coach Chris Mack and Clark made both free throws to give Virginia its first lead since the first two minutes of the game.
That all added up to an exact replica of Louisville’s first half shooting. UVA made 8 of 15 3-pointers in the second half for the same sizzling 53.33% clip. Woldetensae led the barrage and he finished the day 7-of-10 shooting from downtown. That led to a career-high 27 points. Clark also produced a new career high with 23 points, which included a career best 4 3-pointers. He added 7 assists against 4 turnovers as well.
“I don’t want to mispronounce his name [Tomas Woldetensae] but that’s one of the best shooting performances I’ve seen,” Mack said. “They did a real simple action and it’s just tough to guard when a guy gets that hot. We put multiple defenders on him and their other players, Kihei [Clark] stepped up when we help try to, sort of, double as he came off the screen. But, they just kept answering time after time. But I give our guys a lot of credit, you know, you get up as many points as we did and then see that lead evaporate as Virginia has done in so many times before. I’m sure that was in the back of our guy’s minds but our resiliency was what was needed. And you’re going to have to do that when you play against Virginia who, in my opinion, is just getting better and better and better and has the looks of an NCAA Tournament team and it’s not even close.”
Following Mack’s technical foul, the Cardinals came through to finally shake their Virginia jinx. David Johnson tied the game with a driving shot off the glass to tie the score. Diakite drew a foul on the other side, but missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw call and Jay Huff was whistled for an over-the-back violation on that miss. Louisville’s Steven Enoch walked to the other end and made both free throws to get the lead back. His team never trailed again.
The Cardinals’ final 10 points came from the free throw line over the final 3:10 and that was enough to put UVA away. Louisville made 21 of 24 free throws on the day (87.5%) as part of a +11 advantage at the line. The Cavaliers made 10 of 14 shots at the charity stripe. Throw in a 26-18 advantage in paint points and a 31-19 edge in rebounding and that was the deciding difference. Much of that damage around the rim came from Enoch and Malik Williams, who each had 13 points. Williams had 5 offensive rebounds to help get his points. Nwora had 22 points and 7 rebounds to add to the cause.
“Possessions are so valuable in those kinds of games, and you hate when you look at how many times we put them on the line, the discrepancy, you just battle,” Bennett said. “We’ll go to the film and see what we can do better, with our positioning. But I think the rebounding is going to stand out when we gave them some of those offensive rebounds and that puts you in a little bit of a pickle so to speak, where if you go and double the post, they got so many good shooters around it. … I thought Steven [Enoch] made some really nice plays even when he was well defended one on one.”