Mamadi Diakite serves as a vocal leader for the Virginia men’s basketball team.
The redshirt senior knows Tony Bennett’s style well, and he knows what it takes to win a national championship.
He also watched UMBC celebrate as the Cavaliers made history that no team wants to make two seasons ago in the NCAA Tournament. He knows how to handle losing.
There’s not much that fazes the forward.
On Tuesday, when Diakite stepped to the free-throw line against No. 5 Florida State with his team leading 57-56 with 13 seconds remaining, he calmly sank both shots.
“Elite Eight last year,” Diakite said when asked about his confidence on the final free throws. “Final Four ... We’ve been there, and that’s the reason why we’re all clutch today.”
With Virginia leading Georgia Tech by three in the final five seconds, Diakite knocked in a pair of free throws as fans chanted “air ball.” The makes sealed the game.
Against Wake Forest, Diakite made what turned out to be the game-winning layup with 1:05 remaining in overtime. The upperclassman knows he’s a leader, and he’s showing that leadership on the court.
All season long, Virginia’s roster has had the distinction of being inexperienced. It’s a fair label.
Nearly every player on the team is playing a different role than they’ve played before. Kihei Clark went from one of many solid guards to the team’s clear-cut No. 1 option at point guard. Tomas Woldetensae came to UVa from a junior college. Kody Stattmann barely saw the court last season. This journey is new for many of the team’s players.
The inexperienced label is fading, though.
Through 10 ACC games, eight have been decided by single digits, including each of the past seven games. The Cavaliers are growing up before everyone’s eyes.
After having a chance to win every ACC game, but dropping four contests due to horrendous stretches in the final five minutes, the Cavaliers are getting more comfortable late in games. Clark, Diakite and Braxton Key seem confident taking shots in the final minutes that determine the game’s outcome.
Jay Huff has made just two shots in the past two games. Against Wake Forest, he made a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute of regulation, and against Florida State, he threw home an alley-oop dunk to cut the deficit to one in the final two minutes. That set the stage for Clark’s game-winning layup.
Virginia failed in those big moments just weeks ago. The Cavaliers now find themselves rising to the occasion.
“We weren’t perfect, but enough big plays were made,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “You’ve got to do that down the stretch. You can’t win those games unless you take the moment and make a tough play.”
Virginia’s leaders made tough plays against Wake Forest and Florida State. The plays led to victories. The leadership may have been most critical during the team’s three-game losing streak, though.
Diakite repeatedly said the responsibility fell on the players to step up in those final moments. Virginia’s upperclassmen owned their failures during the rough patch. That accountability helped the Cavaliers stay the course, which put them in a position to knock off a top-5 team Tuesday.
The leadership extends to the practice court, too. Diakite encourages younger players struggling with their shots to stick to it.
“I keep telling the young guys to shoot the ball whenever they get it,” Diakite said. “I remember at practice, Kihei telling me that I’m like a second conscience to the guys.”
Clark interrupted to say, “He’s like, ‘Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it!”
Virginia entered the season with limited experience. It needed players like Clark, Diakite and Key to step up on and off the court.
They’re doing that, and it’s starting to translate to victories.