On Friday afternoon, the Virginia Cavaliers faced adversity when playing against 16-seeded Gardner-Webb. For a moment, it appeared the Cavs were going to fall on the wrong side of history in back-to-back years, trailing 36-30 at the half.
It isn’t an overstatement to suggest most of America thought about that scenario.
Tony Bennett made one halftime adjustment that made a huge impact in deciding the game, as he started junior forward Mamadi Diakite. The rest is history, as Diakite provided a spark plug inside, slowing down Gardner-Webb defensively. It wasn’t only on defense, because on the offensive side, while making a major impact inside, he scored 17 points and grabbed 9 rebounds.
Diakite’s play was the key turning point for Virginia to put away the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
Move forward to Sunday night, Tony Bennett went back to what worked on Friday by starting Diakite again, This time against a nine-seeded Oklahoma Sooners.
This decision worked out well for the Cavaliers, as they took control of the game from the tip, in what became a 63-51 win over Oklahoma. Diakite had a big impact, scoring 14 points and grabbing 9 rebounds.
Diakite’s presence may have been felt most on the defensive end, where he slowed down Oklahoma forward Kristian Doolittle, who has been big inside this season for the Sooners. He had a tough time against Diakite, though. After the game Doolittle said that, “He made it really tough on me to get the shots I wanted,” in regards to Mamadi Diakite.
Diakite said in regards to getting the nod to start, ”Starting is big to me, it’s a big challenge,” Diakite said. “(Coach) is telling you, `OK, you have the responsibility to help the team, and we’re trusting you.”
Jack Salt had been the long-time starting five for the Cavaliers. However, one reason that Bennett likely went to Diakite is that he is able to do more on the court. While Jack Salt is a good post-presence and great screener on offense, he has limitations. Diakite, while not as big, is a much quicker and more athletic player, adding needed versatility, which makes him such a tough player to go against.
For the majority of this Virginia Cavaliers team, they will be heading to the Sweet 16 for the first time in their careers, as the last time they danced this deep in the NCAA Tournament was back in 2016. Ty Jerome said after the game “Everybody is talking about a Final Four. But I’ve never been to a Sweet 16.”
Virginia will soak in a victory, for now, but they will get back to work this week and get prepared to play Oregon on Thursday in the Sweet 16. In that game, expect Diakite to start, as he provides probably the best matchup to go against Oregon forward Kenny Wooten, who has been great in the NCAA Tournament.
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