ATLANTA (AP) — Still a far cry from its national championship form, Virginia showed it hasn’t forgotten how to grind out a tough victory.
Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff scored 17 points apiece as the defending champs snapped a three-game losing streak with a 63-58 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday night.
The Cavaliers (12-5, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) finally regained their winning touch after dropping out of The Associated Press rankings for the first time since November 2017.
“We were so close. All three losses, we had a chance to win,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We’ve not learned yet to win at a high level. Today, we won. The wheels were wobbling a little bit, but they won.”
Georgia Tech (8-10, 3-5) lost its fourth straight home game. The Yellow Jackets haven’t won at McCamish Pavilion since a Dec. 4 victory over Nebraska.
“We’re better than our record,” coach Josh Pastner insisted. “But there are no moral victories. You’ve got to win the game.”
The high-flying Diakite dunked off an alley-oop pass to fire up the Cavaliers and capped another fast break with a slam to give Virginia its biggest lead, 43-29 with 14:47 remaining.
The Cavaliers were still up 48-37 with just over 10 minutes to go when Georgia Tech suddenly came to life offensively.
The Yellow Jackets scored on four of five possessions, stringing together a 9-0 run that cut Virginia’s edge to 48-46.
That was as close as Georgia Tech would get.
Huff, a 7-foot-1 center, knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key. A few minutes later, he swished another open jumper to make it 55-48.
Georgia Tech got a basket and a defensive stop, but Braxton Key swooped on for an offensive rebound to give the Cavaliers a second chance. With just over 2 minutes to go, Diakite was left open on the wing for a jumper that made it 57-50, effectively finishing off the Yellow Jackets.
“This is a big turnaround for us,” Diakite said. “It gives us more confidence for the upcoming games.”
Huff also came up big at the defensive end with six of Virginia’s nine blocks.
Georgia Tech had only one block.
“Jay really gave us a lift with his rim protecting,” Bennett said.
Jose Alvarado paced Georgia Tech with 20 points.
Virginia led 33-25 at halftime, taking advantage of the home team’s sloppy play. The Yellow Jackets hit 11 of 18 shots (61.1%) but turned it over 13 times, wasting far too many possessions against the defensive-minded Cavaliers.
“If we took care of the turnovers, Georgia Tech could be a championship team,” Alvarado said. “I’m so tired of coming up just short.”
LETHAL WEAPON 3
Georgia Tech recognized its 1990 team known as “Lethal Weapon 3” during a halftime ceremony.
Those Yellow Jackets were the first in school history to reach the Final Four, led by the dynamic trio of Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver.
“A special group of guys,” said Bobby Cremins, who coached the team and delivered remarks to the crowd.
Anderson, who now coaches at Fisk University in Nashville, continues to recuperate from a stroke about 10 months ago.
“My vocabulary is still out of whack,” he said.
But Anderson lit up as he remembered his desire to attend Syracuse. After a recruiting trip to Atlanta, his mother demanded that he play for the Yellow Jackets.
“My mom fell in love with Coach Cremins,” Anderson said with a smile. “She was like, ‘You’re going to Georgia Tech. Don’t even think about it.’”
Malcolm Mackey, a forward on the 1990 team, said the group continues to maintain a tight bond.
“We’ve been in each other’s weddings,” Mackey said. “We’ve seen each other’s kids being born.”
He still gets recognized around Atlanta for that historic season.
“To still see people celebrate us, still remember us, is just amazing to me,” Mackey said.
Virginia: The Cavaliers picked up a desperately needed victory to avoid their longest losing streak since a four-game skid from Feb. 12-20, 2017.
Ranked next-to-last in the ACC in shooting (40.2%), Virginia showed some offensive efficiency to go along with its always-tenacious defense. The Cavaliers connected on 25 of 53 shots (47.2%), their best performance in a conference game this season.
Key chipped in with 10 points.
Georgia Tech: This is shaping up to be another disappointing season, raising more doubts about whether Pastner can turn around a program that is approaching a decade since its last NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Yellow Jackets continue to show flashes of promise but haven’t been able to develop any sort of consistency in Pastner’s fourth season, largely because of turnovers.
“I know this might sound strange, but I really believe we’ve gotten better,” the coach said. “We’re very close to turning the corner.”
Virginia: Faces a short turnaround, returning home to play North Carolina State on Monday night.
Georgia Tech: Hits the road on Wednesday for the first of two meetings against No. 11 Louisville. The teams will face off again March 7 in Atlanta, the final game of the regular season.
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