No. 7 Virginia cruised past Maine by a score of 46-26 Wednesday despite a disappointing offensive performance. The Cavaliers (7-0, 1-0 ACC) had the opportunity to completely blow out the Black Bears (2-4, 0-0 AEC) but missed shot after shot and failed to run away with the lead. Its relentless defense, however, allowed Virginia to come away with a wide-margin victory to extend its non-conference winning streak to 21 games.
“I think our defense has been our anchor,” junior forward Jay Huff said. “Whether or not we’re making shots, we will hopefully be making stops.”
The Cavaliers were down two starters in sophomore guard Kody Stattmann and senior guard Braxton Key. After hurting his wrist against Arizona State, Key is out indefinitely following surgery earlier this week. It is an especially concerning loss for Virginia, as the senior has been a major contributor for the Cavaliers this season.
“Obviously that’s a tough blow because he brings some heart and effort on the glass and energy defensively,” Coach Tony Bennett said.
Virginia had every opportunity to run away with the lead in the first half, but the Cavaliers were just 9 for 23 from the field and 2 for 11 from the arc. Maine was unable to threaten the lead, but the Black Bears had numerous chances to challenge Virginia and came up with 18 rebounds in the half.
Huff opened the scoring with a three-pointer, going on to score all of the Cavalier’s points in an early 7-3 run.
Virginia continued to press forward and add to its lead as senior forward Mamadi Diakite, freshman guard Casey Morsell and sophomore guard Kihei Clark added their first points of the afternoon. Virginia’s defense refused to let Maine into the paint, and the Black Bears couldn’t generate any significant momentum on offense.
The Cavaliers led 15-7 with 9:40 to go in the first period, but the game entered a temporary dry spell as Virginia missed four straight field goal opportunities. Meanwhile senior guard Sergio El Darwich closed the gap with a three-pointer for Maine, putting the score at 15-10 with 6:03 to go.
Diakite stepped into his role as captain, going on a 7-0 run in the final five minutes of the first half. The Black Bears added a few more points, leaving the score at 24-14 entering halftime.
Clark hit a quick three coming out of the break and Virginia went on an 11-5 run as Diakite and Clark led the scoring. With 14:49 to go, Clark sunk his second three of the period to extend the lead to 35-19.
Virginia quieted around the 15-minute mark and couldn’t generate scoring for the next few minutes as Maine slowly added points to the board. Huff was the only Cavalier to score in the next ten minutes as the Black Bears went on a 7-6 run.
Freshman guard Tomas Woldetensae hit his first three of the night to extend Virginia’s lead to 44-26 with under five minutes left. While the Cavaliers had multiple opportunities to score in the final minutes, a jumper by freshman guard Chase Coleman was the only play to stick, and the final score was 46-26.
Virginia’s weak offense allowed Maine to get the ball back on poor passing, missed shots and messy turnovers. The Cavaliers were able to hold it together through tight defense, but they were missing the necessary spark required to fully pull away from the Black bears.
“We’ve just gotta keep finding some more ways to challenge ourselves with effort [and] continue to work on our shooting,” Bennett said. “I know [our shooting is] obviously a big eyesore, and guys are hesitant at times and uncertain.”
Diakite, Huff, and Clark held the team together with 15, 13 and 9 points, respectively. Notably, Clark sunk three threes on the night and had five assists, stepping up in the moments Virginia needed it most.
“He’s our heart and soul,” Bennett said. “We’re going to have to play as hard as he plays on every possession, everyone, that’s the call for us to be successful.”
Virginia travels to West Lafayette, Ind. to face Purdue Wednesday. The game is expected to be the Cavaliers’ biggest test thus far, as they meet the Boilermakers for the first time since their overtime victory to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament last season.
“All we can do is get ready for it and battle when we get there,” Diakite said.