For most of the second half, Virginia fans relaxed as their team opened up a double-digit lead over Pittsburgh. In the final three minutes, the Virginia faithful started to sweat.
UVa failed to make a field goal in the final three minutes and saw a 13-point lead with 3:51 quickly dwindle to just two points in the final minute. Pitt attempted a 3-pointer trailing 58-56 with five seconds left, but the shot missed and Braxton Key grabbed a critical rebound.
He made one of his two free throws after being fouled, and the Panthers failed to get off a potential game-tying 3-pointer. Virginia (19-7, 11-5 ACC) held on for the 59-56 win.
“We were fortunate, played well, and that would have been a hard one to swallow, but thankfully we held on,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
Here are five takeaways from the unusual game.
While Virginia won, some stretches qualified as ugly. First-half turnovers were frequent, with UVa amassing eight before halftime.
Another problem area, especially in the first half, came on the glass. Virginia allowed seven offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, the Panthers didn’t do much with a plus-six advantage on the offensive glass. Pitt only added five second-chance points in the opening half, and Virginia had two.
Regardless, Virginia made a few mistakes in the first half to keep the Panthers close. Those mistakes weren’t nearly as glaring in the second half. Well, until the final minutes.
Virginia led 53-41 at the under-4 media timeout. The Cavaliers were outscored 15-6 the rest of the way, and the Panthers missed a few opportunities to tie or take the lead late in the contest. Turnovers came at poor times — UVa added eight in the second half, including a pair of costly giveaways in the final 3:30 — and the Cavaliers didn’t make a field goal in the final three minutes of play.
“Second half, I liked how we played defensively, and I like how we rebounded and played good solid tough basketball, then the last four minutes I think we were up double digits,” Bennett said. “They made some plays, a couple off the glass, but they attacked and made some plays and we had too many uncharacteristic turnovers.”
Pittsburgh held an 18-4 advantage in points off turnovers.
For much of the game, Virginia played well. For a few other stretches, the Cavaliers looked lost.
The engine hums
Kihei Clark struggled with inconsistency to start the season. Clark would play phenomenally — like he did in the season opener against Syracuse with 10 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists — and then struggle in other performances — like a seven-turnover showing against South Carolina.
As he’s gained experience being the squad’s primary point guard, Clark’s comfort level seems much higher. He excelled offensively against Pitt, finishing with a game-high 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He added three assists.
Clark did turn the ball over six times, including a pair of sloppy turnovers in the final 3:30, but he propelled the Cavaliers to the victory. In his last five games, Clark is averaging 15.2 points per game on 48.2% shooting and 50% 3-point shooting.
“Kihei was really good but just had some errors,” Bennett said. “I think he’s frustrated with it and I liked how he played up until that point but you grow from it, you learn from it.”
In addition to an improved comfort level, his teammates are finally making shots. Tomas Woldetensae’s 3-point shooting has been tremendous, and consistent outside shooting opens up more lanes for Clark inside. Woldetensae added two made 3-pointers on seven attempts Saturday.
Improved 3-point shooting earns the headlines for the Cavaliers, but Bennett’s team excels in the post. With Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff and Braxton Key all capable scorers near the rim, the Cavaliers can pick and choose when to have the guards take 3-pointers and when to attack the basket.
Against Pitt, the Cavaliers shot just 6-of-18 from long range. They racked up points near the rim, with Diakite and Key combining for 20 points, while only attempting one 3-pointer between the two of them.
Clark also attacked the rim well, adding four field goals inside the 3-point line. Two-point shooting helped Virginia leave Pittsburgh with a victory.
Casey Morsell plays
After rolling his ankle against Boston College and leaving the floor with help from trainers, Morsell suited up against the Panthers. That’s a great sign for the Cavaliers, as the freshman plays defense well and adds depth at the shooting guard spot.
“I didn’t think he would play,” Bennett said. “He didn’t practice the day after. The day before, he did some walking and running, but it kept getting better and better, great treatment obviously by Ethan Saliba, our trainer.”
Morsell played, and he’s finally starting to hit shots. He went 2-of-2 from 3-point range against North Carolina and is shooting 4-of-8 from the 3-point line in his past four games. He went 1-of-3 from distance against Pitt and finished with seven points.
Morsell isn’t the focal point of Virginia’s 2020 team, but it helps the Cavaliers to have him on the floor.
Winning matters this time of year. It doesn’t always matter how a team wins, as long as the team keeps winning.
As the Cavaliers chase down a spot in the NCAA Tournament, they’re peaking. Virginia has won four games in a row and seven of its past eight. The resume shows 19 total victories and 11 in the ACC.
The ending against Pittsburgh was less than glorious, but the middle part of the game was superb. Virginia made the plays needed across the full 40 minutes to win.
Pitt isn’t an NCAA Tournament team, but the Cavaliers added a road win in the Quad 2 category, which won’t hurt their NET ranking.
“Tony has done an amazing job with this group,” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said. “They get better and better as the season’s going on.”
The Cavaliers are playing their best basketball of the season.