When Anthony Lamb buried three free throws to give Vermont a 49-48 lead over Virginia with 5:25 remaining on Tuesday night, the Cavaliers faced their toughest challenge of the season.
Through the first three games, it was smooth sailing for Tony Bennett’s squad. UVa cruised by a cold-shooting Syracuse team and James Madison and Columbia had no answer for Virginia’s size and athleticism.
Vermont (4-1), however, proved up to the challenge behind Lamb’s lead.
The senior forward and NBA prospect dropped 30 points, including 25 in the second half, in Tuesday’s bout. During one stretch, he scored 17 consecutive points for the Catamounts. He was nearly impossible to defend in the final 20 minutes, and he played his best game of the year on the biggest stage of the year.
Every time Lamb and Vermont made a big play, the Cavaliers (4-0) came right back and answered. Eventually, the Cavaliers threw enough punches to deliver the knockout blow, winning 61-55.
“I think we showed some grit with enough stops defensively and enough plays offensively,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “Left some front ends of the bonus, some free throws out there. You gotta be in those spots. It was new for a number of guys to be out there at that time, and some guys stepped up and made enough plays.”
It’s the first single-digit victory for this year’s squad, and the Cavaliers hadn’t trailed in a second half all season until Tuesday’s game. They responded well, leaning on upperclassmen and sophomore point guard Kihei Clark, who finished with a career-high 15 points to go with four assists.
“I thought Clark was really the engine that drove them, and he was a tough cover,” Vermont head coach John Becker said.
While he seems like he’s been at UVa for years, Clark only is a sophomore who wasn’t asked to serve in a starting role last season.
He’s tallied three games in double-figure scoring after only doing it twice all of last season.
He’s answered the bell for the Cavaliers and looks the part of not only a good leader, but also a capable scorer.
“I’ve learned not to question him and what he can do,” Bennett said. “I saw him in some remarkable situations as an inexperienced first year, in the biggest moments, step up and do a number of things when it was needed at the most high intense times or high pressure situations.”
Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff and Braxton Key are all in larger roles this season as well, and they shined Tuesday.
With Kody Stattmann out against Vermont due to an illness, Huff earned a starting nod. He played a career-high 32 minutes, scoring nine points and adding seven rebounds. He only committed one foul and led both teams with seven fouls drawn.
Key stepped up Tuesday as well, making an important 3-point shot late in the game to give Virginia a 55-49 lead in the final five minutes. He finished with 14 points, which ties his season high.
Diakite tied his career high with 19 points and set a career high by making three shots from the 3-point line.
He was a perfect 3-for-3 from beyond the arc.
Clark, Diakite, Huff and Key carried the load Tuesday, tallying 57 of the team’s 61 points in the victory. The talent of the group is undeniable, but this was the first time they had to close out a game without Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome.
They finished the job and remained undefeated.
“That was a good test for us,” Clark said. “The coaches do a good job of just keeping us poised, and we’ve got a lot of veterans on the team [who] don’t get flustered late game.”