Virginia stymies Jones, downs Cards for ACC title 68-58

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack thought he had the perfect game plan for Saturday's battle with No. 21/20 Virginia, and indeed it worked to perfection. Except for one minor detail -- the final score.


UofL (13-6, 8-5 ACC) held the Cavaliers (17-6, 13-4) to a season-worst 2-of-15 shooting behind the arc and committed a season-low three turnovers, but in the end it didn't matter as the visitors still did enough at both ends of the floor to go away with a methodical 68-58 victory in front of 5,200 fans in the KFC Yum! Center..


It was a momentous win for Virginia and a costly loss for Louisville, its 11th in the last 12 meetings with the Hoos.


Coupled with Notre Dame's upset of No. 11 Florida State earlier in the day, the Cavs' triumph gave them their third ACC regular season championship in four years and the No. 1 seed in next week's ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.


The loss cost the Cards a double bye in the tourney as they slid all the way from a No. 3 seed that would have accompanied a win to No. 7. So instead of getting a pass to the quarterfinals, they will play in the second round Wednesday, facing the winner of the first round game between No. 10 Duke (11-11, 9-9) and No. 15 Boston College (4-15 2-11). If the Cards survive that game, they would face No. 2 Florida State (15-5, 11-4).


The defeat also prevented them from claiming just their second Quadrant I win of the season, further damaging their chances of improving what most bracketologists see as a probable No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament.


"Playing Virginia can be frustrating because they're just so solid," Mack said. "If you had told me before the game that we would hold one of the top 10 field goal efficiency teams in the country and how much they rely on the three, to go 3-for-15 from the three and we had three turnovers for the entire game I would have thought it would have been ours for the taking."


It wasn't, thanks to Virginia's suffocating pack line defense keyed by guard Kihei Clark on the perimeter and 7-foot-1 Jay Huff on the interior, plus the offensive firepower of Marquette grad transfer Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy II, a 6-foot-9 junior wing.


Hauser led all scorers with a season-high 24 points. He missed his first shot, then hit eight in a row, including two 3-pointers, before finally cooling off and finishing 9-of-14 with most of his baskets coming on mid-range jumpers, several of which were well-defended. He also grabbed a team-best eight rebounds.


Murphy scored 17 points and Huff added 10 points and six rebounds, while also blocking four shots and altering at least twice as many.


Although the Cavs misfired all afternoon from distance, they shot 24-of-37 on two-pointers for 65 percent while outscoring UofL 32-22 in the paint.


"Hauser, no matter how we defended, three or four of his shots, there's nothing you can do about it," Mack said. "Didn't matter who was on him. We were all over him, but he just shot the ball with a high arc and he's one of the better shooters in the league. When a guy catches the ball 15-17 feet from the basket, looks at the defender and shoots a high-arcer over him and it goes in, it's a little deflating. We have to get mentally tougher on those type of things."


Probably no Cardinal was more frustrated than point guard Carlik Jones, their season-long leading scorer. Dogged by Clark, Jones missed 13 of 15 shots and finished with a season-low six points, the first time all year he has failed to score in double figures. Jones didn't get his first field goal until he scored on a 12-foot runner three minutes into the second half. However, he still managed a game-high six assists.


"Virginia is a very physical team and I say that with all the respect in the world," Mack said. "They do a terrific job bodying your drive and playing on that fine line of legal vs. hands on and our guards struggled against that physicality. Clark is one of the better on-ball defenders in the country and he did a really good job on Carlik.


"We're not the only team they're physical against, that's why they're the regular  season champion. They take a lot of pride on that end of the floor. I do think Carlik got some looks that no matter how physical they are, would normally go in. But it was a tough afternoon for him, for all of us, so give Virginia a lot of credit. Virginia plays very physical and they're very good at it. I think as a unit we got frustrated with their physicality instead of playing through the bumps and trying to figure it out."


David Johnson led UofL with 14 points, but hit just 6-of-17 shots, including only 1-of-5 treys. Jae'Lyn Withers got 12 points and six rebounds, while Samuell Williamson contributed nine points and a game-best 10 boards.


Johnson acknowledged that Mack was correct in his observation that the Cards were troubled by Virginia's physical play.


"Everybody in the country knows that Virginia has always been one of the best defensive teams and one of the things we struggled with was finishing through contact," Johnson said. "It kind of makes you want to give up. It wears you down and we didn't respond well to it. We've got to fight through those things."


With the exception of a 2-2 tie, the Cavs led from wire-to-wire, although the Cards managed to stay within striking distance most of the way. Their last gasp came midway through the second half when Jones scored on a drive to narrow the deficit to 51-47. But Virginia answered with an 11-2 run to balloon the lead to 62-49 at the 5:28 mark and maintained a double digit advantage the rest of the way.


"We had our moments," Mack said. "We clawed back in it and sometimes when you climb to get to that mountaintop it doesn't just allow  you to slide to the other side of the mountain and go down easily. You lose your grip and you fall back down. Good teams respond and Virginia's a good team and they responded. From that point on when they got that separation, I feel like we played against that separation all the way through the rest of the game."


Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose teams weathered a three-game losing streak at the end of February, called the win "special," in part because the Cavs' drive to the 2019 national championship wound through the KFC Yum! Center, where they defeated Purdue in the South Regional championship game to advance to the Final Four.


"The conference this year was tough, there were so many different things that happened," he said. "We played most of our games on the road. I am sitting right now in the locker room where we had one of the biggest celebrations when we beat Purdue to go to the Final Four,, and now right across the hall we are throwing water again. Before the game, we talked about a title fight and our guys laid it on the line and wouldn't yield."

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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