Cavaliers take big step forward in loss at No. 5 Louisville

By Jerry Ratcliffe

File photo by Jon Golden

OK, who’s the wise guy that forgot to pack the Kryptonite?

Perhaps Hall of Famer Rick Pitino’s greatest frustration as a member of the ACC was always losing to Virginia. After one particular vexation a few years ago, Pitino said in the interview room, “Virginia is our Kryptonite.”

No matter the location, the situation, Virginia always found a way to win over the Cardinals. It wasn’t just Pitino, but his successor, David Padgett, and then Chris Mack.

Until Saturday.

After beating Louisville nine straight times over the last five years, Virginia lost its mojo over the Cardinals by an 80-73 count at the KFC Yum! Center. The Cavaliers didn’t go down easy, trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half, and they actually battled back to take a 70-68 lead with 3:25 to play.

This time, UVA didn’t have Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome or De’Andre Hunter to bail them out at the end. Hunter, who was directly responsible for two amazing comeback wins at Louisville — once with a dramatic, last-second 3-pointer — wasn’t around to save the day.

Maybe he took the Kryptonite with him, left it stuffed in his backpack or something.

For a few fleeting moments it appeared that maybe Hunter express-mailed the package to Tomas Woldetensae, whose sharp-shooting expertise must have made the Cardinals wonder if he might be a reincarnation of Guy or Jerome. The former junior-college All-American drilled in seven 3-pointers (matching his career high), leading to his career-high 27 points.

Combined with point guard Kihei Clark’s career-high 23 points (career-best four 3-pointers), the Cavaliers almost made a comeback for the ages before running out of gas in the end. Behind a 21-of-24 free-throw shooting performance in the second half (Louisville did not shoot a free throw in the first half), the Cardinals outscored Virginia 12-3 over the last three minutes for the win.

Virginia had not only won nine in a row against Louisville, but 11 of the last 12, the lone loss coming five years ago when unheralded Mangok Mathiang put up a prayer in the waning moments that allowed the Cardinals to prevail.

UVA coach Tony Bennett knew this would be his team’s greatest challenge since playing at Purdue back in November. Fifth-ranked Louisville was on a nine-game winning streak, atop the ACC, and boasted an athletic team that could play at a 50s or 80s pace, whatever the particular opponent demanded.

When it was over, Bennett’s message to his team was the same as before the game when he had challenged his team to leave the Yum! Center a better team than when the Cavaliers arrived.

Mission accomplished.

“I don’t know if that means you’re going to win,” Bennett said. “Who can say that? You sit there and look at these guys before the game [and think], ‘We’re winning this one,’ but I say to just leave it a better team, that’s what I think we did today. I can handle being beat. I just don’t like losing, and we didn’t lose today.”

Technically, yes, the Cavaliers lost. Virginia is 15-7 and 7-5 in the ACC.

Capriciously speaking, the Cavaliers lost, but made strides as a team. They lost on the scoreboard but gained more than just a ‘W’ or ‘L.’

While their three-game winning streak came to a close, it was the second time in the last four games that UVA scored at least 65 points (the most this season).

The Cavaliers entered the weekend struggling to score, struggling to shoot a decent percentage. They have been mired at the tail-end of the nation’s 353 Division I basketball teams in field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting all season long.

Saturday in Louisville, Virginia shot a season-best 53.1 percent in ACC play, posted a season-high 11 3-pointers and 50 percent 3-point percentage.

“I’d like to talk about Virginia’s scoring troubles,” Cardinals coach Chris Mack said tongue-in-cheek to start his postgame media talk. “I don’t want to mispronounce his name [Woldetensae], but that’s one of the best shooting performances I’ve seen.”

UVA used a simple action that is difficult to defend, to spring Woldetensae free for a 7-of-10 performance from 3-point range. Louisville tried multiple defenders on the “Italian Galleon,”  but he kept firing over the Cardinals’ zone and man-to-man defenses.

When Woldetensae wasn’t scoring, Clark was. He drilled 3’s and penetrated the Cardinals’ ‘D’ for some both easy and challenging layups.

With Virginia scoring and turning it over a season-low seven times, Bennett had to be encouraged with those aspects of his team headed toward the home stretch of the season.

Even Mack admitted that with its lack of success against UVA over the years, his team had to be thinking about another Cavalier comeback.

“[Virginia] just kept answering time after time,” Mack said. “I give our guys a lot of credit. You get up as many points as we did and then see that lead evaporate as Virginia has done so many times before. I’m sure that was in the back of our guy’s minds, but our resiliency was what was needed.”

Usually, it’s defense that keeps Virginia in a game. This time, not so much. 

While the Cavaliers scored a season-high 73 points, they gave up a season-high 80. Louisville shot 51 percent (25 for 49) and was 9 for 22 from the arc, in addition to winning on the glass, 31-19.

Bennett wasn’t happy about any of that, but understood this was one of the most athletic, most experienced teams UVA would face this regular season.

“We talked about being the best version of ourselves,” Bennett said. “We took a step in defeat.”

A step that could lead to some very important wins over the next eight games, including a regular-season-ending rematch with Louisville.

Maybe by then, the Cavaliers will figure out what happened to the Kryptonite.

Comments

  1. Dennis says:

    I was actually just expecting Virginia to pull it out all the way to the end.

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