NEW YORK — The Virginia men’s basketball team received timely offensive contributions from one unlikely source, highlight-reel moments from a top reserve, and its usual stout overall defense to outlast Clemson, 64-58, in the ACC tournament semifinals Friday night.
Starting center Jack Salt scored eight points, more than double his season average, and forward Mamadi Diakite came off the bench to spark a 10-0 run early in the second half that allowed the Cavaliers to gain a working margin on the way to their ninth appearance in the tournament final.
Top-seeded Virginia (30-2), which also got a team-high 15 points from guard Kyle Guy, will face sixth-seeded North Carolina on Saturday night. The Cavaliers will be playing in their third ACC final in five years.
“This was a blue-collar game where you’re going to just have to fight for everything,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said while sitting on the stage next to Salt and guard Ty Jerome. “Both teams tried to really play hard-nosed defense, but I think our fans have appreciated how hard these guy play, and that’s been our way.”
Redshirt senior guard Devon Hall made 3 of 4 free throws over the last 13 seconds for the final margin, and soon after the whistle to end the game, many among the Cavaliers faithful stood and chanted Salt’s name as he walked off the court following Virginia’s eighth straight victory over Clemson (23-9).
Virginia’s lead had dwindled to 50-45 with 6:36 to play until the Cavaliers got consecutive baskets from Salt, a strapping 6-foot-10 New Zealander who added a game-high eight rebounds in addition to several deflections and tap-outs of missed shots to teammates.
The final minutes included Jerome’s jumper with a foot on the three-point line that produced a 61-52 lead with 1:18 remaining, but De’Andre Hunter and Guy both missed front ends of one-and-ones, giving fourth-seeded Clemson a glimmer of hope.
The Tigers made two free throws and got Gabe DeVoe’s layup to trim the deficit to 61-56 with 25 seconds to play before Hall’s foul shots extended Virginia’s overall winning streak to seven and further added to its claim on the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I didn’t know,” Salt said when asked about the standing ovation intended for him. “They were probably surprised I was scoring so much. It was a good game, grinded it out, but happy at the end of it.”
A nine-point halftime lead for Virginia shrank to 34-30 with 16:17 left in regulation before the Cavaliers scored 10 in a row, with Diakite getting the first six of those points and Guy the last four.
Two of Diakite’s field goals during the run came on dunks, including a reverse one-hander after dribbling along the baseline to create separation from defenders. The margin swelled to 44-30 when Guy scored on a driving layup while drawing contact, although no foul was called.
Diakite had 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting and four rebounds for his first game in double figures since scoring 12 on Feb. 3 during a 59-44 win against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
“Who doesn’t want to score?” Diakite said. “I’m just trying to help the team get to a point where we’ve never been before, and I’ll try my best to do that. I’m not necessarily the person who has to do it so the team can win. We’re all aware of that. As you can see, each night someone new steps up and leads the team, like Jack today.”
The meeting between Virginia and Clemson was their second this season, with the Cavaliers winning, 61-36, on Jan. 23 at John Paul Jones Arena. Clemson’s point total was the smallest the Cavaliers have permitted this season and one of three times they have held an opponent in the 30s.
The Tigers reached the ACC tournament semifinals with a 90-82 win against No. 12 Boston College on Thursday night and have prospered this season despite having lost standout senior forward Donte Grantham to a torn anterior cruciate ligament Jan. 20.
Grantham, the team’s second-leading scorer, had his college career end against Notre Dame, but Clemson went 7-5 without him entering Friday night on the way to setting a program single-season record for most ACC wins (11) and securing its first top-four seed in the conference tournament since 2011.
Aamir Simms has moved into the starting lineup following the injury, becoming the first non-redshirt freshman to start a game for Clemson since Grantham in 2014.
Simms was part of an early rush that gave the Tigers a 20-13 lead with 9:32 to go in the first half, but Virginia responded by holding Clemson without a field goal for the rest of the first half. Clemson’s only points in that span came on three free throws by guard Shelton Mitchell.
Otherwise, Clemson went 0 for 10 from the field to close the half, and the Cavaliers reeled off 19 points to take a 32-23 lead at intermission. Guy concluded the binge with back-to-back three-pointers, sinking three overall in the half.
“They have a very good system, extremely well-coached,” Clemson Coach Brad Brownell said of the Cavaliers.
“They’re extremely big, long and athletic. I don’t think people realize, like they’re bigger than we are at almost every position. Every position, you look at their guys and look at our guys, a couple inches difference, five to 10 pounds strength, and that’s true of a lot of teams that they play against.”
More on college basketball: