No. 22 Virginia downed No. 10 Louisville in Charlottesville Saturday afternoon, 57-54. The Cavaliers (23-7, 15-5 ACC) were led by an 18-point effort by sophomore guard Kihei Clark, as they secured their fifth-straight home win against the Cardinals (24-7, 15-5 ACC).
Notably, this game marked Senior Day for the Cavaliers, as forward Mamadi Diakite and guard Braxton Key were honored before tip-off. Manager Grant Kersey was also honored with Key and Diakite, as he suited up for the Cavaliers in 10 games last season and one game this year.
“I kind of thanked [the seniors] for what they’ve meant to this program yesterday before practice and after practice,” Coach Tony 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.'”
Virginia immediately controlled the pace of the game after the tip, taking a 6-2 lead off of a Clark jumper with 16:27 left in the first half. However, following a near-two minute scoring drought for both teams, Louisville’s sharpshooters caught fire, as senior center Steven Enoch and senior guard Ryan McMahon drained back-to-back three-pointers for the Cardinals.
Diakite got the crowd going with a dunk to cut the Cardinals’ lead to 10-8, but Louisville junior forward Jordan Nwora sank two straight three-pointers to extend the lead to eight points. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers continued to fight back, using a jumper from freshman guard Casey Morsell and a quick three-pointer from junior forward Jay Huff to claw within three points with 8:43 to play in the first half.
Louisville then took advantage of a 2:02 scoring drought by the Cavaliers to gain a 20-13 lead, but a jump-shot from Key kicked Virginia’s offense into rhythm, fueling a 12-4 run. A three-pointer from Clark sealed the run for Virginia and gave the Cavaliers a 25-22 lead with 3:49 left in the half.
Although Enoch responded with a jumper to cut the Cardinals’ deficit to one, Virginia scored the final six points of the half, capitalizing on numerous shooting fouls by Louisville and seizing a 31-24 lead heading into the final 20 minutes of Virginia’s regular season.
The Cavaliers picked up where they left off in the second half, netting points from Clark and Diakite to extend their lead to double digits. Although Louisville continued to probe Virginia’s defense, it was unable to put together solid offensive stretches against the Cavaliers’ strong packline defense.
With 13:20 to play, junior guard Tomas Woldetensae drained his first three-pointer of the last three games to extend Virginia’s lead to 43-29 — the Cavaliers’ largest lead of the evening. However, Woldetensae immediately fouled McMahon on a three-point attempt on the other side of the floor, and the Sarasota native converted all three free-throws to inch the Cardinals back.
The two teams continued to battle back and forth, but with 9:56 left in regulation, Louisville finally found a seam in what had been a rock solid Cavalier defense. Following a layup from Diakite, Louisville’s All-ACC forward Nwora converted a three-pointer to cut Virginia’s lead to 47-38.
This started a stretch of eight straight points from Nwora, who capped off the run with a jumper to shave the Cavaliers’ once 14-point lead to just three points, the score at 49-45. Capitalizing on a prolonged stretch of offensive efficiency by Virginia, McMahon drained a three-pointer with 5:47 left in the game to bring the Cardinals within one.
Taking matters into his own hands, Diakite responded with a tough layup in the paint, but Louisville junior guard Darius Perry joined in on the three-point barrage with his only three-pointer of the game to tie the contest at 51. However, for the following 3:24, both teams struggled to generate any points until a free-throw by Diakite with 1:48 to play broke the deadlock.
Virginia continued to stay locked in on defense, refusing to give the Cardinals any room to work, and with 28 seconds left finally broke the game open. Clark went around a screen from Huff, and Louisville freshman guard David Johnson backed off, expecting a drive to the basket. However, the Woodland Hills, Calif. native saw the space and sunk a three-pointer, hitting nothing but net, to extend Virginia’s lead to 55-51.
“[Clark] is a gamer,” Louisville Coach Chris Mack said. “He is a floor general. He makes his mistakes, but he doesn’t bow his head or put his head down. He continues to play, and he’s got some moxie, that is for sure.”
The Cardinals proceeded to miss two three-pointers, and with three seconds to go, Diakite drained two free throws to put the game out of reach. Although Louisville freshman guard Samuell Williamson converted a corner three-pointer to cut the Cavalier lead to 57-54, it was too little too late, as Virginia held on for the victory.
“I don’t think that was our best basketball yet, but it was a really good game,” Diakite said. “We needed this. We are going to keep evolving no matter what. Like I said, the job is not done, we’re going to turn the page and focus on resting our bodies and getting ready for the ACC tournament.”
The win marks the fifth time in the last seven years the Cavaliers have won 15 or more games in the ACC. Additionally, the victory seals the No. 2 seed for Virginia in the ACC tournament,
which starts Tuesday in Greensboro, N.C. The Cavaliers last won the ACC tournament in 2018, defeating North Carolina as the No. 1 seed.
As the No. 2 seed, the Cavaliers will have to wait and see how the second round of the tournament plays out before facing either the No. 7 or No. 10 seed in the quarterfinals. Tipoff for Virginia’s quarterfinal showdown is set for 7 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum.