The old saying goes that something may be too close for comfort. Comfortable or not, the Virginia basketball team should at least be used to close games by now. The Cavaliers played another down-to-the-wire game Wednesday night and squeaked out the 50-49 overtime victory against visiting Notre Dame.
That marked the eighth time this season that UVA has played a game with a final margin of 6 points or less. Virginia is 6-2 in those games. Wednesday’s contest also became the third overtime game of the year and the Hoos are 2-1 in the OT games this season.
“We thought it would be a rock fight, I told them it would, it was,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “They’re probably more accustomed to the rock fights than us.”
“It was just kind of find a way,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “That’s sort of been the storyline for us all year in these games. We’re getting very tight down the stretch and it’s can you make plays? In this case, I don’t know if we made plays. We just got a couple of stops or they missed. I don’t know how to look at it, but we’ll take it.”
To get this game into the win column, the Cavaliers needed to rely on their calling card and get key defensive stops at the end of regulation and overtime.
First, after knotting the score at 47-47 in the final 30 seconds of regulation, they had to find a way to keep the Irish from scoring in the final 25 seconds. Following an ND timeout, the Hoos had three fouls to give and Kihei Clark executed that part well to drain the time all the way down to three short seconds. The visitors got the ball to John Mooney for one final attempt and he tried to get free for a quick baseline move, but Jay Huff kept him pinned under the basket and prevented the bucket before the ball bounced out of bounds. With 0.3 on the clock for one final lob attempt, UVA prevented a pass toward the rim and time expired in regulation.
The Hoos needed to duplicate that feat in the closing seconds of overtime too. Mamadi Diakite gave his team the lead with a pair of free throws, but Prentiss Hubb answered with a tough jumper to keep the score tied. The rest of OT, however, became a battle of missed free throws. Huff missed the front end of a one-and-one chance at 2:31 and Mooney missed both free throw shots at 2:04, which set off a bacon celebration among the students. Mooney also tried to rebound the second miss and fouled Braxton Key in the process. Key made 1 of 2 free throws for the 50-49 lead that became the final margin.
For that to work, UVA had to get stops on defense over the final two minutes and especially in the final 20 seconds with the game on the line. Kihei Clark fended off a Hubb drive and forced him to fire a pass along the baseline where Casey Morsell contested a final Rex Pflueger 3-point attempt in the corner. That shot missed, Key grabbed the rebound, and quickly through the ball down the court to run out the final couple of seconds.
“We thought there would be a high ball screen, with [Mooney]. We made a sub and just said, ‘Try not to foul. Make them earn,’” Bennett said. “They do some good stuff. They’ll sometimes do a dribble handoff, because they had enough time to do a few things. They’ll keep on doing dribble handoffs, they’ll fake a dribble handoff and go. In that spot, it’s just ‘don’t give anything too easy at the rim – make them get a tough shot.’ They threw a little drift pass in the corner, but we missed free throws, we had some key turnovers down the stretch, and they missed some open shots, but we’ll take it. We did fight and we battled and came up with a tough win.”
Those final stops helped hold Notre Dame under 50 points, the 11th time this season that the defense achieved that level of stinginess. The Hoos are 11-0 in those games and Bennett-coached teams are 123-3 when holding teams below that mark in his career (98-2 at UVA and 25-1 at Washington State).
The Fighting Irish shot just 32.8% from the floor overall (20-61), 23.1% from 3-point range (6-26), and 42.9% from the free throw line (3-7). After making 5 of 12 triples (41.67%) in the first half, the visitors cooled off and went 1-14 the rest of the way. Hubb led his team with 12 points and 4 assists, while Mooney added 11 points and 14 rebounds. Nate Laszewski chipped in 11 too.
Virginia didn’t fare much better. The Cavaliers made just 37.3% overall (19-51), 25.0% from 3-point range (5-20), and 63.6% from the free throw line (7-11). Ultimately, the small difference at the free throw line was just enough for UVA to push the game into the win column.
Diakite delivered at the charity stripe with two key shots in overtime and a 6 of 8 night overall, a line that came despite missing the front end of a one-and-one chance with 3:04 to go in regulation. The effort on the line was only part of the story, though. Diakite put together a strong night overall.
The senior led all scorers with 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting. Diakite aggressively created shots around the basket from post touches and kept attacking even when some plays didn’t go his way. The assertive moves to the basket included a critical bucket late in regulation that set up the important defensive possessions in the end. With UVA trailing 49-47, Diakite got the ball on the right block, faced up the defense, and then made a strong move to the middle of the floor. He rose up and made the shot with 25 seconds remaining. That bucket was UVA’s only field goal in the game’s final 11:46 including overtime.
Diakite added 5 rebounds, 1 blocked shot, and 1 steal too. He surpassed 500 career rebounds in the process (504).
“It wasn’t that physical to me,” Diakite said. “I just had to fight through things because some of those calls weren’t there and they called some of them. I just have to play through it and not worry about anything. Coach was emphasizing to the guards to throw us the ball inside so we can go to work because that’s where most of our points came from.”
The Wahoos also picked up 9 points and 3 assists from Clark, who played all 45 minutes. Huff scored 8 points (all during a second half flurry) and posted 9 rebounds with 2 blocked shots too. Tomas Woldetensae had 5 points after a cold shooting night (1 of 8 on 3’s), but he tallied 5 rebounds and 3 assists to help the cause. Morsell checked in with 5 points too. Key had 3 points, but snared 12 rebounds that included 10 off the defensive glass.
That production was just enough to get to victory lane in what set up as a critical game in the ACC race for a double bye in the conference tournament and on the national scale as NCAA Tournament talk heats up in mid February. Both UVA and Notre Dame are hovering around the bubble in the varying bracketology conversations. That makes wins, particularly at home, extremely important.
“Every win from now on is very important for us, but in order to get every win we don’t have to think about the NCAA Tournament yet,” Diakite said. “We’re getting ready for that but in order to get there, we have to think about each step. Now we have to forget about this game that just happened, learn from it obviously, and think about Carolina.”