Last year was about the Big Three: How about Virginia’s new Fab Four?
To this point in the 2019-2020 season, the identity of the defending champs was: stop opponents, score enough to win.
A game turning into a shooting contest wouldn’t fit the script, but with Lamb sinking shot after shot after shot, that’s what Tuesday night was.
Kinda felt like that Elite Eight game with Purdue back in March, when that UVA team needed to outscore Purdue to advance.
That UVA team, of course, had De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy.
This one has role players from that team, plus a JUCO transfer and a freshman.
You had three guys who were on the way to the next level ready to take over last year.
Past Virginia teams had Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, Anthony Gill.
The question Tuesday night: who would step up, if anybody, to win what was becoming a knife fight?
A Mamadi Diakite three. A Kihei Clark driving layup. A Diakite layup, a Jay Huff dunk. A couple of Braxton Key threes.
Last year was about the Big Three.
This year’s group, let’s call them the Fab Four.
“I think we showed some grit with enough stops defensively and enough plays offensively. We left some front ends of the ball and some free throws out there. You know, you’ve got to be in those spots that’re new for a number of guys to be out there at times. Some guys stepped up and made enough plays on both ends,” coach Tony Bennett said after the 61-55 UVA win.
Diakite’s emergence has been the most dramatic. The 6’9” senior averaged 7.4 points per game for the title team, but after flirting with the NBA Draft in the spring, Diakite returned with a newfound sense of what he can be in terms of being the man.
Through four games, Diakite is averaging 15.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, shooting 51 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from three.
His tally on Tuesday: 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting, 3-of-3 from three-point range.
“He’s played well. I think he just has to continue to stay within himself, but stay aggressive and just lock in,” Bennett said of Diakite. “We need his ability to do things and just be sound and tough, and let your play do the talking. That’s the best way. Play with passion, but remain humble and let your play do the talking. I think that’s really important.”
Consider Diakite up for the challenge.
“There’s always room to grow,” Diakite said after the game. “I kind of got bumped up and wanted to take the challenge. I was excited. He (Bennett) talked to me, and I answered to it. I got caught in the moment. Right after that, I took a step back and thought about it. I should just be in my game and play.”
Clark has also been up to the challenge. The 5’9” sophomore averaged 4.5 points per game a year ago, but Clark 2.0 is at 10.0 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 43.8 percent from the floor and 40.0 percent from three-point range.
Tuesday’s numbers: 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting and four assists.
“I never got worried even when we were down late. Keep knocking away, keep pushing and doing what we do so we can kind of impose our will on them,” Clark said. “Lamb had an incredible game, and we had to make every shot he took tough. If he made it, he made it. Defensively late in the game, I thought we were good.”
Also stepping up big: Braxton Key, who had 14 points and six rebounds, and the two huge second-half threes.
Season numbers for Key: 11.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
“Guys made a lot of plays. Kihei made some plays. Jay made a lot of plays, Mamadi, myself, we all made a lot of plays,” Key said.
Finally, Huff. Playing a career-high 32 minutes, the 7’1” redshirt junior wasn’t at his most productive, putting up nine points and seven rebounds, but seven of his points came in the last 8:33.
For the season, Huff is averaging a career-best 11.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game and shooting 69.0 percent from the floor.
“We just had to collect ourselves and get back to where we knew we needed to be and adjust some things here and there,” Huff offered by way of assessment on Tuesday’s win.
So, there you have it. Virginia has a Fab Four.
Heard it here first.
Story by Chris Graham