UVA basketball coach Tony Bennett, players Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Ty Jerome, on win over OU

uva basketball bear creekTHE MODERATOR: With head coach Tony Bennett and the University of Virginia, Ty Jerome, Mamadi Diakite, and Braxton Key.

TONY BENNETT: Obviously, just excited to come away with a hard fought win. I thought these guys really came to play. They played for each other defensively. I hope — they did it at the end of the first half all through the second half against Gardner-Webb, and then all game they just rotated and covered and made it hard for Oklahoma.

They ran their hard stuff. You know, an uncharacteristically cold shooting night from Kyle, but they withstood that, some foul trouble from De’Andre. These guys that are on the podium and the guys in the locker room, they stepped up and big plays were made and it certainly felt good.

Q. Ty, it seemed like there was some carryover from the opening game. You played very loose in this one, very relaxed, as opposed to some of the pressure you mentioned feeling in the opening game. Did it feel a little bit more comfortable tonight?
TY JEROME: Yeah, but like I said, after last game, just a testament to our coaching staff really. They’re doing such a great job of giving us that freedom offensively and just getting us to play hard but allowing us to play free. That’s just such a great job by them.

Q. Braxton, what did you think when Kyle fed you that little pass there on that one play?
BRAXTON KEY: Kyle, he’s an underrated passer. He can make a lot of plays passing the ball, creating for teammates, stuff like that, but he just has eyes in the back of his head. It was a good find. I should have dunked it, but my legs were a little tired.

Q. Mamadi, another big scoring game for you. Kind of what do you attribute to your last few games scoring? What’s been clicking for you?
MAMADI DIAKITE: I’ve just been very patient and letting the game come to me. I wasn’t trying to force anything, pretty much.

Q. This is sort of playing off of that, Mamadi. You really seemed locked in tonight from being able to hedge past the top of the key and still sprint back and defend in the post. Were you locked in? Was it your night?
MAMADI DIAKITE: Yeah, I was locked in, and I was trying to respond to the challenge Coach gave me. He started me tonight, and I wanted to prove him that I was ready to play. So I did so.

Q. Braxton, in their first game, Oklahoma was able to get to the rim very easily against Mississippi. Obviously, the way you guys played defense, it’s designed to stop that, but how much of a focus was keeping them away from the rim tonight?
BRAXTON KEY: It was huge. Our coach just told us I think they got most of their points from a two-point field goal. So just trying to get in the pack and make it more difficult for them to get inside. When they got inside, just post trapping their guards and try to give them different looks that they may not have seen prior to today.


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Q. Ty, talk about advancing to the second weekend for the first time in a while for this group. What does it mean to you?
TY JEROME: It means everything to me, honestly. It’s my first time in the Sweet 16, like I said. After last game, I told you I’ve never been to a Sweet 16. Everyone is talking about a Final Four, but I’ve never been to a Sweet 16. Just the opportunity to play with this group again for a whole ‘nother week and practicing with this group and traveling with this group, that’s what means the most, I think. Just to keep playing with this group of guys.

Q. For all you guys, coach just talked repeatedly about urging you to enjoy the joy of pursuing a championship. How much does the enjoyment grow, I guess, game to game, round to round, as you get some momentum and you get really into this?
TY JEROME: Yeah, I don’t think the joy necessarily grows because every time we step on the basketball court, you have to understand how blessed you are to play the game you love. I think it’s just, like I said, another week, more opportunity to play with the teammates you love for the coaches you love and for the fans you love.

But we’re nowhere near relaxed, nowhere near satisfied. We’re not even close to our end goal. Just got to come day by day and get ready to practice on Monday.

MAMADI DIAKITE: Thinking of what he just said, we try to enjoy every step that we have, but, again, the job is not done yet. We’ve got more games to go, more preparations, and we have to know what other teams have for us. In order to get to the next phase, we need to prepare ourselves.

Q. Mamadi, you said that you wanted to respond to your coach’s challenge because he decided to start you today. When did you find out you were starting, and what exactly did he want to challenge you to do?
MAMADI DIAKITE: It was this morning, and I mean, starting is a big — to me, it’s a big challenge. He’s telling you, okay, you have the responsibility to help the team, and we’re trusting you. So I just answered to it.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, gentlemen. Questions for Coach Bennett?

Q. Tony, Ty said the other day that a big reason for Mamadi’s success this year is because of how much he’s grown as a person. Have you seen that, and how has that sort of manifested in his play?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, he’s matured. I think a key, I said it after the game, is he allowed us to play Doolittle one-on-one in the post. Mamadi’s quickness off the floor to bother maybe his midrange shot and just work so we didn’t have to come and trap. That puts a lot of pressure on their defense with your ability to shoot from three, especially their four man, Brady Manek. When we could go one-on-one, that was significant.

I think Ty made a great statement. We got off to a rocky start last game, Mamadi, all of us, and Mamadi responded. He just kept playing and stayed steady. So certainly maturity, resilience, those are things that — you know, it’s just part of the maturation process that each player kind of comes at differently, and I say it all the time. He’s newer to the game, and he’s young and joyful and all those things, and to be able to handle adversity or a hard start, that’s a separator for a lot of players. He’s definitely coming in the right direction, and he was terrific yesterday and today.

Q. We already asked the guys, but it seemed like maybe there was some tightness or pressure in that opening game. Certainly, the circumstances of the game played into that. Tonight they seemed like they played very relaxed and free. Did you notice that? Did you notice it pregame, during the game, or do you think I’m crazy?
TONY BENNETT: No, only the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff who were part of last year’s team and this year’s team can truly appreciate and understand — you know, we tried to get back to this spot. Even to be a 1 seed and then to have to go into the situation and to be down in that game, definitely pressure in terms of the game. So that was real. You could feel it. And to show the resilience to kind of get through that.

Then I was hopeful that they could play — I don’t think it was no worries. There’s pressure and excitement and tension to try to advance in this tournament, that’s always there, but it was a different feel. It’s unlike anything — well, no college basketball team really in the history of the game has had to go through that. It’s our doing. We were the first 1 seed to lose last year, and then all of a sudden to fight back and become a 1 seed, and then to be in that situation again. You talk about trying to focus in and then getting down, it was real. So I think those guys will have that as something they can always draw upon to say we faced a giant and battled through it.

So I think that, for sure, they were in a better place to start this game. We tried to be in a better place. That’s a credit to how Gardner-Webb played to start the game, as well.

Q. Tony, I seem to keep feeding questions that people asked before me, but to my trained eye, this looked like one of the best games you guys have played in a while. Everything seemed to go smoothly. The rotations on offense and defense went well. Is that the way you saw it?
TONY BENNETT: I thought we played enough quality basketball. We had to be ready from the start, and we got off to a real good start, and then we had a little trouble at a stretch there. But we were steady and got good lifts, and again, to absorb not shooting as well from Kyle and the foul trouble from De’Andre, different guys — Braxton stepped up, Kihei was terrific, Mamadi. Obviously, Ty and all the guys did the job, but I think that there was a playing for each other defensively, as I said in my opening statement, and sharing the ball and just trying to — you know, you get into these possession games trying to impose your will or outlast, and that was part of it. Both teams were playing hard, and fortunately, we just had enough good plays and stops at the right time.

Q. Tony, when did you decide to start Mamadi? And how important was he to that fast start and then rebounding back from that little run Oklahoma had after you went up?
TONY BENNETT: He started the second half against Gardner-Webb, and we thought, well, Jack Salt is so physical, and we thought maybe he could play one-on-one against Doolittle. But what we wanted to do offensively, I thought there was some more scoring opportunities for how we were going to attack for Mamadi, how to roll and get on the rim and make some plays. And then his quickness, I thought might be a factor. That’s the reason why, and that was planned on.

I was mulling it over. I told him at the morning walk-through that my plan is right now to start Mamadi, but I’m not 100 percent sure. So I had an out in case I didn’t start him, but that’s how it played out.

Q. Tony, you didn’t mention him yet, but it seemed like Jay Huff gave you a big lift in the first half.
TONY BENNETT: Yes, absolutely. Terrific.

Q. Two big baskets that got the crowd going and a couple of blocked shots also defensively.
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, absolutely, Jay, his length, he scrambled. He did a good job defensively. His dunk, the three. That’s what you need in these settings for different guys to come in and step up. We know who our main three guys are scoring, but you saw it from Mamadi and Jay and Kihei with big baskets and timely plays. I was going to play Jay in the second half, but our defense was going and the matchups were right, so I did it and he was phenomenal on the bench. He’s coming. His best basketball is there. He and Mamadi are continuing to improve, but big lift from Jay.

Q. I know you’re going to enjoy this one, but have you thought ahead a little bit to Louisville and a place you’re familiar with, you’ve been to, you’ve had some great moments there in that arena?
TONY BENNETT: Not really. Just survive and advance. Now we go and play there. I’m not even sure who we play, if that game’s over or not. So we’ll get to all that stuff. But we will enjoy the pursuit of what we’re doing.



uva basketball team of destiny

Team of Destiny: Inside UVA Basketball's improbable run

Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.

The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.



 
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