“We’re young, and it’s not the fact that we don’t know how to play, but knowing when to do what,” said Diakite, whose personal total was a season high. “I think the guys are getting there. Today, I saw some flashes offensively. Sometimes guys would be open and then go.
“At the beginning of the season, it wasn’t so. Guys were holding it or scared, or they weren’t just doing what they’re supposed to do when they get the ball.”
The most promising stretch offensively for the Cavaliers came in the second half, when freshman guard Casey Morsell (St. John’s College High) scored six straight points, sophomore point guard Kihei Clark followed with a three-pointer and Diakite added a dunk to draw Virginia within 45-44 with 11:32 to play.
But after Braxton Key split a pair of free throws to tie the score at 45, the Cavaliers reverted to the offensively challenged group that has failed to score more than 65 points in a game just one season after winning the national championship behind one of the most efficient attacks in the country.
“In the past we’ve been so good, and we know our margin for error this year is smaller than most years,” Coach Tony Bennett said.
Entering Sunday, Virginia ranked last in the ACC in virtually every meaningful offensive category, including points (53.8), field goal percentage (39.5), three-point field goal percentage (25.5) and assists (9.6), with a lineup devoid of depth.
Last season, the Cavaliers finished first in the ACC in three-point field goal percentage (39.5) and second in field goal percentage (47.4) while averaging 71.4 points per game, the most since Bennett took over the program in 2009, behind a diverse attack featuring a handful of future NBA players.
But with the departures of Kyle Guy (Sacramento Kings), Ty Jerome (Phoenix Suns) and DeAndre Hunter (Atlanta Hawks), Virginia continues to seek consistent scoring, particularly from an inexperienced backcourt without a player averaging double figures.
Clark shot 2 for 7 on Sunday and committed seven of the Cavaliers’ 19 turnovers, Virginia’s most this season. One of the standouts during the title run, Clark has 14 turnovers over two games, a function, Bennett indicated, of taking over as the primary ballhandler rather than sharing duties with Jerome.
Virginia has a week off to regroup before playing its final nonconference game next Sunday against Navy and then turning its attention toward ACC competition full-time.
“Sometimes over-penetrating, getting in traffic, trying to do a little too much,” Bennett said. “There’s also that feeling of, ‘I’ve got to get something; we’ve got to get a bucket and make something happen,’ that you sort of walk that fine line, and it can cost you against these teams.”
Still, there is at least a glimmer of optimism for the Cavaliers’ offensive maladies after Key reentered the lineup this week. The 6-foot-8 senior played in his second straight game Sunday after missing the previous three with a surgically repaired wrist.
Key is averaging nine points per game and shooting 47 percent, but most importantly, the versatile guard-forward has the trust of Bennett after playing important minutes during the national championship run, most notably blocking a shot at the buzzer in the NCAA tournament final against Texas Tech to set up overtime.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Key said. “Today, it was just really turnovers, and had we taken care of the ball, rebounded a little better offensively and defensively, I think the outcome would have been different. Maybe, maybe not. But when you’re not getting shots, it makes our offense a lot harder.”
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