Virginia needs Mamadi Diakite’s recent run of good play to continue against Duke

Story by Zach Pereles

Mamadi DiakiteMamadi Diakite was coming off his worst performance of the season in his team’s biggest game of the season: a two-point, four-foul dud against Duke.

The Cavaliers had suffered their first loss of the campaign, and three days later, they needed to shrug it off and fend off lowly Wake Forest to get back on track. And Virginia wasn’t shy about trying to reestablish its talented big man.

On the very first possession, Diakite caught a pass from Ty Jerome and went up for a lefty hook shot.

It didn’t even draw iron.

Undeterred by his inauspicious start, Diakite ran down the loose ball, poking it away from Demon Deacons point guard Brandon Childress. He set a screen for Jerome, rolled to the basket and then finished a strong layup through a foul. His free throw splashed through, and Virginia grabbed a 3-0 lead.

On the next possession, Diakite got a beautiful feed from Kyle Guy and flipped up a short one-handed jumper. The net barely moved. 5-0 Virginia.

On the next possession, Diakite caught a pass several feet outside the paint and squared up Wake forward Jaylen Hoard. He pounded the ball once into the ground and then made his move, a swift dribble toward the center of the lane. A running hook found nothing but the bottom of the net. Mamadi Diakite 7, Wake Forest 0.

Consider any demons from the Duke game vanquished. The Guinean big man had already surpassed his season average of 6.4 points per game. Virginia’s lead would eventually balloon to as large as 25-3 as the Cavaliers not only rebounded from the loss, but pummeled their opponent in the process, led by the player who had struggled the most days earlier.

“Mamadi got us off to a real good start,” Bennett said. “That was good. … Versatility, depth and balanced scoring … it was good to see some drives and some finishes from the interior.”

Perhaps sparked by those three early baskets, Diakite has played at a very high level since the loss the the Blue Devils. He has scored in double figures in three of the four games since the loss in Durham, the first time in his career he’s managed that feat. But he’s also been terrific on the defensive end with 11 blocks in his last three games, the most by any Cavalier in a three-game stretch since Travis Watson’s 12 in 2002. His 12.1 block percentage is first in the ACC, and his 15.4 offensive rebounding percentage — he had five offensive boards against the Hurricanes — is second.

In turn, those frustrations following the Duke loss have turned into postgame smiles for the redshirt junior.

“I’m just trying to have fun there,” Diakite said Saturday, a smile creeping onto his face after an 11-point, six-rebound, three-block performance against Miami. “I just like having fun blocking shots. Whenever I have a window, [I] just take it.”

Diakite’s minutes have been up — 23.5 per game in the last four games compared with just 18.5 in the previous 17 games — and he’s come through at crucial moments with other players struggling. Against Miami, his seven second-half points helped keep the Hurricanes at bay even as the Cavaliers couldn’t quite pull away.

Virginia is hoping Diakite’s strong play over the past two-plus weeks will carry over into the Cavaliers’ rematch with the Blue Devils. He’s Virginia’s most agile and switchable big man on defense, which makes him a perfect fit to defend Duke’s athletic, lengthy offensive weapons. Diakite has shown the ability to block opponents as both an on-ball defender and a help defender. And when Duke takes its lone true big man, Marques Bolden, out of the game, Diakite is the tallest Virginia player who can hold his own on the inside and defend the perimeter.

That’s why Bennett went to him against Notre Dame’s John Mooney, a big man who can face up, shoot and handle the ball.

“I thought Mamadi was a key in this game when they cut it to 12 and we were having a little trouble,” Bennett said Saturday. “I reinserted Mamadi back in, and his quickness, I thought, defensively allowed us to guard Mooney at the three point line, and then also he used his quickness and blocked some shots.”

In theory, that makes him a natural fit to be the featured big man against Duke, too. Diakite’s length and agility can challenge RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson on the interior, his height allows him to match up with Bolden or Javin DeLaurier, and his quickness can help him limit perimeter options Tre Jones and Cam Reddish if needed. Plus, he’s been a very good rebounder on both ends of the floor, something with which the Cavaliers struggled against Duke the first time around.

“I think his timing is getting better,” Bennett said Saturday. “He’s so quick off the floor. That’s unmistakable. I liked a lot of those. The offensive rebounds and the blocked shots — those are the winning plays, those are the important plays in games like this that can save you. … I think he’s even improving. It looks like his timing and his reading of it has gotten better.”

If Diakite can continue his strong play against Duke, it will be a major plus. He provides a blend of defensive versatility, athleticism and offensive skills that will be pertinent against one of the most gifted teams in the nation. He seems to be up to the challenge and eager to get some personal revenge from a performance from Durham he knows wasn’t up to his standard.

“We’re going to come right and leave it on the court,” he said Saturday.

 
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