CHARLOTTESVILLE—Mamadi Diakite planted off his left foot and lifted off, rising in sync with Miami forward Sam Waardenburg. The Hurricanes’ sophomore had no chance.
Diakite extended his arm and smacked Waardenburg’s shot off the backboard, preserving Virginia’s slim lead late in the second half of Saturday’s game, which the Cavaliers won, 56–46.
Diakite must’ve felt comfortable in the air. He left his feet again seconds later to catch and slam an alley-oop from Braxton Key, then blocked another shot on the Hurricanes’ ensuing possession.
While the Cavaliers struggled to find their groove offensively, with point guard Ty Jerome on the bench with an undisclosed back injury, Diakite anchored the Pack Line defense with four blocks in the Wahoos’ 56–46 win.
Bennett attributed Diakite’s recent success—he has now blocked a shot in each of Virginia’s past 14 games and has 11 blocks in the team’s past three games—in part to breakdowns opening driving lanes. But Diakite is doing something right.
“His timing is getting better, and he’s so quick off the floor,” Bennett said. “I think he’s eager to improve. It looks like his timing and just his reading for it has gotten better.”
The praise from Bennett is a departure from the kind of rhetoric the coach used to evaluate Diakite earlier in the month. Despite having scored 18 points in 25 minutes at Boston College on Jan. 9, Diakite was pulled early due to foul trouble. The same happened three days later against Clemson.
In both cases, Diakite was given a verbal lashing from Bennett on his way to the bench.
That was not the case Saturday. Yes, he did collect four fouls. But they were spread across 31 minutes, which Diakite interspersed with enough positive defensive plays to stay on the floor.
The redshirt junior, for his part, didn’t attribute his improved play to timing or a change in approach.
“I am just trying to have fun out there. I just like having fun, blocking shots when I have a window,” Diakite said.
He also scored 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting, providing key points baskets on a day Virginia scored its second fewest points of the season—including a pretty fadeaway jumper with 4:11 remaining that pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 12.
Receiving the ball on the low block from Guy, Diakite turned and dribbled to his left into the paint, picked up the ball and released while falling backwards. Swish.
It was the type of performance that might provide Bennett clarity on the ever-fluid frontcourt rotation. Diakite logged more time than center Jack Salt (18 minutes) and forward Jay Huff (nine minutes) on Saturday, meaning he could play a central role in the team’s game against Duke this coming Saturday.
The Cavaliers struggled to keep freshmen forwards Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett in front of them in their previous matchup Jan. 19, and the duo feasted for a combined 57 points. And if Jerome isn’t healed by the rematch, the onus will fall even more on Virginia’s big men to keep the Blue Devils’ athletes in check.
Bennett will want Diakite to have some fun.