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Tony Bennett, mad scientist, rides defense-first lineup down the stretch to win at Louisville

reece beekman uva louisville
Reece Beekman defends Louisville guard Carlik Jones in the paint. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett had seen this second half play out a few times this season.

All the way back to the San Francisco game, when the Dons put up 40 in the second half in a 61-60 win in November.

Kent State had 40 in the second half to push the ‘Hoos to OT in early December.

Notre Dame had 43 in the second half of a double-digit loss to UVA. Virginia Tech, 44, in a come-from-behind win in Blacksburg.

We can continue: Pitt had 39 in the second half of its loss in Charlottesville, N.C. State 39 in its upset win in JPJ last week.

All were in the 20s in the first half.

Louisville had 21 on Saturday, on 8-of-29 shooting.

Then put up 26 in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, on 9-of-14 shooting from the floor, 3-of-3 from three.

The Cardinals were getting into the lane, getting to the line, getting open looks on the perimeter.

So Bennett did something radical.

Sam Hauser had been making practically everything he was throwing in the direction of the rim.

Kid had 24 on 9-of-14 shooting – the last two misses end-of-shot-clock forces that you wouldn’t count against him.

Jay Huff had 10 and was 5-of-6 from the floor.

But what Louisville coach Chris Mack did to try to get back into the game – going small – was working.

The radical thing that Bennett did: he subbed out Hauser and Huff at the 9:39 mark, with Virginia up 51-47, inserting high-motor Justin McKoy and underrated lockdown perimeter defender Tomas Woldetensae in their place.

The lineup, then: Bennett had Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman, two point guards, Woldetensae and Trey Murphy III, two perimeter guys, and McKoy.

Mack went small, so Bennett countered by going small.

The one glaring issue: basically one guy you worry about scoring, in Murphy.

Otherwise, man, that lineup, brutal.

You had to be thinking that what Bennett was doing was just trying to steal the next couple of minutes with this defense-first group to get Hauser and Huff a breather to the under-eight media timeout, hopefully with the lead, but either way, at the media timeout, he’d put his two leading scorers back in the game for the stretch run.

He may have been thinking that, but then, wouldn’t you know it, the new lineup … worked?

Aside from subbing in Casey Morsell for Clark for a three-minute stretch, it was Clark-Beekman-Woldetensae-Murphy-McKoy for the win.

Hauser got in for just over a minute in the final 9:39, and Huff never did check back in.

“A pivotal moment is when Tomas (got fouled shooting that three ball in the corner and made all three free throws. They were coming back, so I thought that was significant,” said Bennett afterward.

And, yes, that sequence – Woldetensae drawing the foul on a corner three, then connecting on the three charity tosses to put UVA up 54-47 at the 8:47 mark – was huge.

Also huge: offensive rebounds.

Murphy scored on a stickback from a Woldetensae miss at the 8:01 mark to push the lead to 56-47.

Then, after a Samuell Williamson jumper got the lead back down to seven, you had a McKoy layup, a Louisville turnover, a possession that featured two UVA offensive rebounds, ending with another McKoy layup, and, remember that under-eight media timeout?

We never got it.

Mack had to burn a TO from his stash with 6:12 to go to stanch the bleeding after a 9-2 run had Virginia up 60-49.

“Man, those guys played their butts off,” Hauser said after the game, a 68-58 final – UVA outscoring Louisville 17-11 in the final 9:39, holding the Cardinals to 4-of-14 shooting down the stretch.

“On the defensive end, they were phenomenal, and they were making really good plays on offense,” Hauser said. “I think that’s what really sealed us the game, is that stretch when those guys were in, and hats off to them, they played awesome tonight.

“We really needed everyone tonight, because it was a hard-fought battle against a really good team.”

That’s magnanimous of Hauser, to say the least, considering how he’d been scorching hot, then sat as his team went out and won the ACC.

Hadn’t mentioned that part yet.

This team, reeling just a few days ago, from a three-game losing streak that had put Florida State in charge of its destiny in terms of the ACC regular-season race, caught a break earlier in the day, when Notre Dame upset the ‘Noles, 83-73, to open the door.

“We had our eye on the game, knowing that if they lost and we won, we would win it,” Hauser said. “When they ended up actually losing, we couldn’t have a blind eye to it, and we knew what was at stake. I think that gave us even more motivation for this game. At the start of the year, this was one of our goals.”

Somebody needs to commission a statue to go outside the Yum! Center to commemorate all the big UVA wins in that building – the De’Andre Hunter buzzer-beating three to cap a rally from down four with nine-tenths of a second left in 2018, the Clark-to-Mamadi Diakite buzzer-beater that forced OT in the Elite Eight win over Purdue in 2019.

And now, a third ACC regular-season title in four seasons.

“It’s not lost on me that I’m sitting right now in the locker room where we had one of the biggest celebrations when we beat Purdue to go to the Final Four,” Bennett said. “Right across the hallway was our other one, we were throwing water and just so excited. I said, ‘Congratulations to the 2021 ACC regular-season champs.’

“To have those opportunities and special moments in this building, and to see what some of the guys did and to get the contributions from the bench, Sam, what he did was special, Trey, and just a bunch of guys, I think made it taste sweeter. I’m so grateful, I really am, because it’s been a unique year, to say the least, and we will remember it always.

“We’ll put a mask on the ACC trophy, for sure.”

Story by Chris Graham


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