At this point, the Virginia basketball team is really testing the old adage “too close for comfort” for its fans. Playing yet another ACC game down to the wire, the Hoos pulled out a road win against a rival in the final seconds again on Wednesday night. Kihei Clark provided the soul-crushing shot this time, connecting on a smooth pull-back 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining to dismiss Virginia Tech, 56-53.
Clarks’ dagger swished through the net just 11 days after Tomas Woldetensae delivered the parting shot with 0.8 to go at North Carolina in a 64-62 win. Overall, of the 15 ACC games in 2020, UVA has played 10 that ended within five points or overtime. Wednesday’s game marked the fourth time in the last five games that the outcome was decided on the final possession.
Clark deftly noted that you don’t want to be in those spots, but you can get used to it and feel a little more comfortable in those situations over time. That same logic may not apply to the fanbase, though.
“I don’t like being in the situation, but I mean we’ve been in it so much where you kinda gotta stay calm,” Clark said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network. “You’ve been through so many games like that, you kind of know what to do.”
Knowing what to do in this case came without a timeout.
Just moments after Tyrece Radford tied the game for Virginia Tech on a driving layup with 11 seconds on the clock, Clark calmly dribbled up the court and waited for his teammates to settle. The option was there to go either direction, but Clark chose a ball screen to his left, lost defender Jalen Cone with a hesitation dribble to fake the drive, and then pulled back a crossover dribble to set his feet. The shot he let fly from there splashed through and the Wahoos celebrated on a rival’s home court once again.
That gave Virginia its fourth straight win in the series and third straight victory at Cassell Coliseum. The Cavaliers have won five straight games to reach the 20-win plateau for the ninth consecutive season. They now stand at 20-7 overall and 12-5 in ACC play; they’ve clinched a double bye for the ACC Tournament next month as well.
“Sometimes we call timeouts, sometimes I decide not to, and thank goodness I didn’t,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said of the final play. “[Virginia Tech] could’ve set it up, the score was tied, and sometimes it’s just better to let a guy get momentum and attack. Kihei backed the guy up and what a beautiful, beautiful 3. He’s a winner, and I’ve said that often. I kind of challenged him – I didn’t think he had the greatest second half with some of his defensive things, but he responded the right way with the way he played, and we needed every ounce of it.”
That could have been said about much of Virginia’s defense in general in the second half. After allowing a season-low 11 points in the first half to take a 26-11 lead into intermission, the Wahoos watched the Hokies scorch the nets for 45 points in the second half. That included some hot shooting from 3-point range as the hosts challenged defensive rotations with spacing, pick-and-pop actions, and more.
Tech hit 8 of 14 3-pointers (57.1%) in the second half to finish at 9 of 27 for the game (33.3%). Overall VT shot 51.85% in the second half, the fourth time in six games that an opponent has shot at least 50% percent in a half. The Hokies opened the second frame by making five straight shots, which started with a P.J. Horne triple. That cut the lead to 33-23 and Virginia Tech already had more points in 3:24 than it had in the entire first half.
“We were doing the exact same things in the second half that we were doing in the first half, but we thought that there were a couple actions that we could pick on and get some things freed up,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said. “I thought that we screened better in the second half, and that certainly helped our play. Jalen got behind a couple screens and banged some shots. [Mamadi] Diakite is such a terrific defender and he did exactly what they wanted him to do, but P.J. found the range and looked like P.J. again, so that was a welcome sight. There was nothing that we saw towards the later stages of the first half that we turned our attention to. We did exactly the same things in the second that we did in the first. We simply made shots.”
Landers Nolley led the VT attack with 13 points on the strength of 6-6 free throw shooting. Horne ended up with 9 points on a trio of triples, while Radford and Cone added 8 points each. Hunter Cattoor had 6 points, including the shot that gave Tech its first lead. Tech’s 9 3-pointers came from five different players with Horne, Cone, and Cattoor all hitting more than one.
“They were really getting the ball up on 3-pointers. In the first half, I think they were just missing shots,” Clark said. “We said that in the locker room, that we had to start getting a hand up because they weren’t going to just keep missing. Credit to them. They really moved the ball well. Their point guard Jalen Cone did a good job of getting open and knocked down some big shots for them. Credit to them.”
“You knew they were going to make a run here, and they started attacking and made some long 3’s,” Bennett said. “A few of them were contested and on a few of them we had some breakdowns because they were running good actions. So, give credit to how they attacked and what they did, and we weren’t sharp. It was so long ago when we played them the first time, and we played one of our best games at our place. The 3-point shot is such a momentum swing, so they just started going. We could feel the crowd, and they sure wanted the bacon you could tell that, and when they got the lead this place got very loud. So, our guys responded well.”
Indeed, things looked bleak for a moment for the visitors.
VT surged to its first lead, 47-46, at the 4:30 mark behind its sharp shooting. The scoreboard see-sawed on plays after that, but Nolley pushed the Hokies ahead 51-48 with 3:31 to go. When UVA’s Braxton Key committed a turnover shortly after that, the Hoos’ chances teetered. They didn’t panic, though.
Key took a charge to stop the momentum on the defensive end. Clark followed with a runner to cut the lead to one and Virginia moved back in front when Kody Stattmann set up Casey Morsell for a corner 3-pointer that made it 53-51. That helped set the stage for Clark’s final bow. Virginia also handled its business at the free throw line in the final 10 minutes. The Hoos made all six of their attempts in the final eight minutes and finished 8 of 10 overall.
The late-game dramatics overshadowed another strong outing for Mamadi Diakite, who poured in 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting. He made his only 3-point attempt and both of his free throw attempts. The senior added 6 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Clark fed Diakite on several of those buckets via screen-and-roll action. He finished with 10 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1 steal.
UVA also got a big double-double from Key, who tallied 10 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block. Morsell contributed 7 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist. His night included the critical corner 3 that gave Virginia the lead back in the final two minutes.
“We didn’t play very good second-half defense, and I want to credit Virginia Tech; they had a terrific second half. They hit tough shots and they really battled,” Bennett said. “That was part of it, but we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be. They took the lead and then Casey Morsell hit the 3 to put us up, then Kihei Clark making that play at the end, obviously. Braxton Key had some big rebounds, Mamadi Diakite made his free throws. Some guys made plays and I have said that repeatedly – you have to make plays offensively, defensively, what have you. I give credit to their second half, but I didn’t think we were as sharp as we needed to be. In the first half we had a good stretch of defense, but they were a little cold and didn’t make those shots, so we’ve got to keep working on that.”