‘Cardiac Cavs’ do it again, steal No. 2 seed from Louisville in Senior-Day finale

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Mamadi Diakite holds his framed jersey aloft before his final game at JPJ Arena (Photo by John Markon).

Tony Bennett took his seat in the media room and started fielding questions after Virginia had just given its fan base a new round of palpitations Saturday night. The “Cardiac Cavs” had just lived up to their reputation yet again with a heart-pounding, 57-54 win over Louisville at John Paul Jones Arena.

UVA’s coach was multi-tasking, giving thoughtful answers about the Cavaliers’ huge win, but was distracted by a nearby TV monitor flashing other ACC scores. Having knocked off the 10th-ranked Cardinals, Bennett was hoping for a Boston College upset at league-leading Florida State, which would have given Virginia a share of the ACC regular-season title.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, FSU nailed down the conference regular season and the No. 1 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament with a convincing 80-62 win over BC.

Saturday’s results left Virginia in a three-way tie for runner-up in the league with Louisville and Duke, but gave the Cavaliers the No. 2 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament in Greensboro. UVA will play the winner of the Notre Dame-Boston College game on Thursday night at 7 p.m.

Who would have thought on the night of Jan. 20 that Bennett’s squad could come anywhere close to a second-place finish? They were in the midst of losing four of their last five games — albeit close games for the most part — and were struggling offensively. They were one of the nation’s worst shooting teams, not only from the field, but particularly from the 3-point line.

From that moment onward, Virginia executed a near-perfect turnaround, winning 11 of its last 12 games, knocking off Florida State, Louisville and Duke in the process (the lone loss was a tough defeat in the first meeting at Louisville). After topping the Cardinals in the rematch at JPJ, a venue where Louisville has never won, the Wahoos remained one of the nation’s hottest teams with their eighth consecutive win.

As has been their modus operandi during the past dozen games, Saturday was yet another cliffhanger.

Had Fred Sanford still been around and was a Virginia fan, he would have been a goner.

“Elizabeth, I’m comin’ to see ya,” he would have uttered for the last time. No way he could have survived this ride with the Cardiac Cavs. It’s easy to identify UVA fans these days. They have no fingernails remaining. All chewed up. Neighbors can tell when it’s the final minutes of Virginia games because of all the screaming. Local hospital emergency rooms are flooded with hypertension cases.

Saturday was just another thriller-diller as UVA blew a 14-point lead with 13:19 to play and found itself requiring more heroics down to the wire to survive yet one more time.

“Did you think it was going to end any other way?” Bennett cracked.

We all knew better when Louisville went on a 16-2 run to get back in it and make Virginia sweat, that the Cavaliers would find a way. They always do.

In 10 of the 11 wins, Virginia has won by a grand total of 30 points, or by an average winning margin of 3 points per game. Toss out the 13-point blowout over BC. How did that happen?

Just another day at the office for the Wahoos, who have thrived under pressure. Playing before a reunion of UVA basketball alumni, such as legends like Sampson, Parkhill, Wonderful Wally, Terry Holland, and more, it was a microcosm of the home stretch of the season.

“We get down to that point and it doesn’t really seem to faze us that much,” said 7-foot center Jay Huff. “Last game, me and Braxton just looked at each other like we’ve been here about 20 times this season. I don’t really think that we get nervous. Even last year, it was the same.”

Everyone remembers that magic. This year, it’s some of the same characters playing larger roles.

Mamadi Diakite, playing on Senior Day, posted 17 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Point guard Kihei Clark put up 18 points and 5 assists, essentially knocking down another decisive, dramatic 3-pointer under immense pressure with 29 seconds to play.

Huff added 11 points, a pair of blocks and 5 rebounds, none bigger than swatting one Louisville shot, then ripping the rebound out of a Cardinal opponent’s grip during a ferocious span with about two minutes to go when every possession was precious.

Louisville, playing for a potential share of what would have been its first regular-season crown since joining the ACC, tried just about everything. Coach Chris Mack went zone, he played mostly man-to-man, he went large and gambled on injured starting center Malik Williams’ bum ankle (Williams could only last seven minutes in the first half before coming out for good), and he went small with essentially five guards, hoping Bennett would pull one of his big men.

Bennett didn’t. He left both Diakite and Huff in and made the Cardinals adjust to him.

“They are playing their best basketball of the year,” Mack complimented Virginia afterward.

Bennett was pleased with the effort after barely escaping a trip to Miami earlier in the week when his team looked mediocre at best.

Winning for the eighth consecutive time on Senior Day, ushering out Diakite and Braxton Key on a good note, was important.

“I kind of thanked them for what they’ve meant to this program [Friday] before practice and after practice,” Bennett said. “I said, ‘As much as I’d love it if [Boston College] could get it and you can get a share of the ACC title, that doesn’t take away from what just transpired in terms of the effort you put out there, how you play and what you’ve done this year, and for your careers here.’”

Virginia, now 4-2 against ranked opponents, held Louisville to 59 or fewer points in nine of the 13 meetings against the Cardinals, who are now 2-11 versus UVA since joining the ACC.

The win capped off another strong regular season for a team that lost four starters from last year’s team and was a perfect regular-season ending for a team that appeared dead in the water in mid-January. Huff said that bump in the road was kind of the kick in the pants that the team needed.

“[Finishing tied for second] means a lot,” Huff said.  “A lot of people early on were saying this is a down year and they’re not going to do well. It’s great to prove them wrong.”

Bennett was proud of how far his team has come since that little January slump, and where it’s headed in the postseason.

“We’ve improved,” the coach said. “We were really close when we were losing, and we’re still really close when we’re winning. I just think guys have moved the needle a little and it’s been enough.

“We know what our lifeline is, trying to be as good as we can defensively.”

Now it’s on to postseason, where guards are supposed to make the difference, where defense travels, and gut-wrenching, down-to-the-wire games are the norm. 

The Cardiac Cavs are ready. Question is, how much more can their fans take?

Comments

  1. Frank says:

    Starting to think the Virginia coaches have stock in the pharmaceutical companies!

  2. Lucy Berndt says:

    Thank you Mr. Ratcliffe for as always writing a thoughtful, well written article about our cardiac cavs.

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