Virginia Louisville Basketball

Virginia guard Kihei Clark (right) dribbles the ball around Louisville guard Darius Perry during the first half on Saturday in Louisville, Kentucky.

After the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s game at No. 5 Louisville, Virginia looked done. Despite hot first-half shooting, the Cavaliers (15-7, 7-5 ACC) trailed by 14 points to a red-hot Louisville team at halftime. The Cardinals hit shots from all over the floor, and the home crowd roared.

Despite a large deficit, UVa fought for the full 40 minutes. Virginia even rallied to take a 70-68 lead with 3:25 remaining.

That lead would be short lived, as Louisville ended the game on a 12-3 run to win 80-73. The Cavaliers had chances to pick up a critical victory, but they fell just short Saturday.

Here are five takeaways from Virginia’s 80-73 loss to Louisville.

Rocky start

Virginia started its win over Clemson on a 14-2 run and led 26-14 at halftime. Louisville started Saturday’s game on fire, making six of its first seven 3-point attempts. Chris Mack’s team raced out to a 20-11 lead in the first six minutes of action.

Fortunately for UVa, it also started the game strong offensively. The Cavaliers shot a high percentage and kept the game close, but the Cardinals possess significantly more offensive firepower than the Cavaliers. Louisville kept finding open looks, and it extended its lead to 44-30 at halftime. It knocked down eight 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes.

The Cardinals entered the game 17-0 when leading at halftime. They improved that mark to 18-0 thanks to a remarkable first-half shooting display that gave them a 14-point cushion.

Defensive lapses

Louisville shot the ball exceptionally well, and Virginia also made a few defensive lapses. Louisville made contested 3-pointers, but it also found its way to the rim too easily at times. It wasn’t a vintage Virginia defensive performance, especially in the first half.

The Cardinals dropped 44 first-half points due to hot shooting and a few defensive miscues.

In the second half, UVa’s defense tightened. The Cardinals scored 36 in the final 20 minutes, but late free throws helped inflate that total. Virginia played defense more like itself in the second half. A few key offensive rebounds helped Louisville score in the final few minutes.

“We knew they could shoot, but you have to trust the defense behind you and try to pressure the ball, so I thought we adjusted well,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.

Regardless, it’s hard to win when giving up a season-high in points. It’s only the sixth time since 2010-11 that a team scored 80 points against UVa in regulation.

Offensive outburst

While the defense wasn’t perfect, the offensive execution was arguably its best all season. Virginia made decisions without hesitating. The Cavaliers made clean cuts, shot in rhythm and attacked the basket when possible.

Louisville head coach Chris Mack started his press conference by joking, “I’d like to talk about Virginia’s scoring troubles.” The Cavaliers scored 73 points after failing to eclipse 65 points in a game prior to Saturday.

Tomas Woldetensae starred, scoring a career-high 27 points on 7-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc. He joins Kyle Guy as the only UVa players to make seven or more 3-pointers twice in one season since 2010-11.

When Virginia needed baskets, the studio art major delivered. He willed the Cavaliers back into the game on numerous occasions.

“He’s got a very good feel,” Bennett said, “He’s aggressive with, what we like to say, ‘Hunting his shot.’ Our guys did a good job of finding and screening them. We screened well. He gives us offense.”

The backcourt performed well all night. Woldetensae and Kihei Clark combined to score 50 points on 18-of-26 shooting and an 11-of-16 clip on 3-point shots. Clark’s 23 points were a career-high. That level of production isn’t sustainable, but if the duo can add consistent scoring to go with a solid frontcourt, the Cavaliers’ offense can take a noticeable step forward.

Virginia allowed a season-high 80 points, but it also scored a season-high 73 points. The offense played well against a top-5 squad.

“Our guys hung in there, and again, usually our defense keeps us in there,” Bennett said. “Well this time, our offense had to kind of keep us in there, and Louisville’s a very good team obviously.”

Missed opportunity

With a weak ACC this season, the Cavaliers’ NCAA Tournament resume needs marquee wins. With both games against Florida State completed, games against Louisville and Duke are the main opportunities for Virginia to boost its resume. The first opportunity against those two teams resulted in Saturday’s loss.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, two of their final three games of the season come at home against Duke and Louisville. It’s hard to know exactly what Bennett’s team needs to make the NCAA Tournament, but those two games matter.

Winning at Louisville was a tough ask, but it is a missed opportunity for the Cavaliers. Two massive opportunities remain.

Building block

While Virginia did squander an opportunity, it also played a top-5 team tight on the road for the second time this season. The Cavaliers fell to then No. 5 Florida State in Tallahassee earlier this season before beating the Seminoles at home about two weeks later.

UVa sees Louisville to close at the season on March 7. Despite losing, there were positive signs, especially offensively, in the loss. If Virginia can generate consistent offense in its upcoming games against lesser opponents, the Cavaliers can put themselves on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble without marquee wins.

Bennett’s team didn’t quit when down 14 at halftime to an elite Louisville team. While the program is far beyond moral victories, there are positives that can be taken away from a close loss at Louisville, especially when the Cardinals come to John Paul Jones Arena in a month.

“We took a step in defeat,” Bennett said. “I can handle being beat. I just don’t like losing, and we didn’t lose today.”

After the close loss to FSU, Virginia won four of its next five games. It needs a similar response to Saturday’s defeat.

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