No. 7 Virginia basketball defeated Vermont 61-55 Tuesday night in a highly contested matchup at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers (4-0, 1-0 ACC) allowed the Catamounts (4-1, 0-0 AEC) to stay in the game as the teams traded the lead throughout the second half. Senior forward Mamadi Diakite led Virginia in scoring with 19 points, while junior forward Jay Huff posted seven rebounds.
The teams met for just the second time in program history. The last time the Cavaliers faced an American East foe was during the opening round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament when they lost to UMBC in historic fashion. Vermont was also able to make Virginia sweat, though the end result was more favorable for Cavalier fans.
Vermont senior forward Anthony Lamb was a major threat against Virginia, staying hot from beyond the arc throughout the game. Lamb finished the game with 30 points for the Catamounts and shot 50 percent from three.
“[Lamb] surprised me with his range today,” Diakite said. “I didn’t think he had that, but he had a good game.”
The Cavaliers were inaccurate and sloppy with the ball in the early minutes. The Catamounts took advantage and jumped out to a 7-0 lead. Diakite responded by sinking a three to finally get Virginia on the board.
Vermont was unable to extend its lead as the Cavaliers used an 11-0 run to gain the advantage. Yet to break out in the way many expected, freshman guard Casey Morsell added his first points of the night to push the score to 16-10 with 6:42 left on the clock.
From the start, Huff and sophomore guard Kihei Clark weren’t connecting with the same chemistry that marked Virginia’s previous game against Columbia. The two combined for just five points in the opening half. Huff excited the crowd, however, with his first big dunk of the night off an assist by junior guard Tomas Woldetensae, pushing the lead to 20-12.
In the final minutes of the half, Virginia continued to score while the Catamounts countered nearly every one of the Cavaliers’ buckets. A buzzer-beater three-point shot by Vermont senior forward Anthony Lamb cut Virginia’s lead to 24-18 at the break.
Diakite led the team with 10 points in the first half, including a pair of threes. On the other end, Woldetensae contributed a pair of steals and six rebounds. The Cavaliers shot 40.9 percent from the field but were inefficient from beyond the arc, shooting 25 percent compared to Vermont’s 28.6 percent.
Virginia’s second-half start was slow as Vermont opened with a layup and a three-pointer to get within one point of the Cavaliers at 24-23. The Catamounts stormed back into the lead thanks to Lamb, who single-handedly scored the next 11 points for Vermont with three three-pointers and a jumper.
“I never got worried, even when we were down late,” Clark said. “[We] just keep knocking away, keep pushing, keep doing what we do and impose our will on them.”
The game was a back-and-forth affair in the final 10 minutes as fans in the crowd remained on their feet for virtually the entire time. Lamb remained a force from deep but the Cavaliers were able to generate scoring of their own — Diakite, Clark and Huff helped Virginia stay within range of the Catamounts.
Virginia retook the lead with 5:12 left in the game and didn’t let it go for the remainder of the game. Key hit a momentum-shifting three-pointer to push the Cavalier lead to 55-49 as Virginia’s veterans took control of the game in the late stages.
From there, Virginia played out the clock and finished with a 61-55 win as the team remains undefeated at home and overall.
“I think we showed some grit with enough stops defensively and enough plays offensively,” Coach Tony Bennett said after the game.
Diakite was proud of the new players who stepped up in the game.
“We didn’t know how to teach them to play the way they played today,” Diakite said. “Today was a perfect example of trying to outlast the other team … I thought they did a great job.”
The Cavaliers next travel to Uncasville, CT to play Massachusetts Saturday at noon.