Cavalier Corner

Dec. 2019

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12 CAVALIER CORNER BY BRAD FRANKLIN T O PUT TOGETHER an encore performance in his final season in orange and blue that would replace many people's endur- ing memory of him, it's safe to say that Mamadi Diakite would need to have an incredible year. Otherwise, most will attach "The Play" to him for years and years to come. But long before he was saving UVA's sea- son and its national championship pursuit, catching a three-quarter-court pass from Ki- hei Clark in the final seconds of regulation in the Elite Eight, the former Saint George (Va.) Blue Ridge School standout had ce- mented himself as one of the funniest and most energetic Cavaliers in program history. After testing the NBA waters this spring, the 6-9, 224-pound forward decided to re- turn for his redshirt fourth-year season. And after then-No. 11 Virginia's 65-34 win over James Madison in the home opener Nov. 10, Diakite strolled into the media room at John Paul Jones Arena on the heels of his first- ever double-double. "His one-on-one game has improved dra- matically," teammate Jay Huff said. "He's also very quick, so just that combo makes him hard to guard. If you step back too far, he'll shoot it. And then if you get too close, he'll go right past you and dunk it." "Hey," Diakite said quietly to Huff two seats down, a growing smile on his face. "Thank you, man." It's that sort of spirit that has come to de- fine the long, athletic playmaker, who now has established himself as a team leader and one of the central pieces for Tony Bennett and the reigning national champs. "He's really improved," Bennett echoed of Diakite. "He's worked very hard. I think he's improved really all areas of his game. I think his shot is better. He's scoring better. He's a bit more continuous. He's always been athletic and can protect the rim, but I think he understands that there will be some more opportunities for him and [the team needs him] trying to lead better." "I used to come here all the time," Diakite said of UVA. "It was always like home for me. I would ask my coach at Blue Ridge to bring me, and I would call Coach Bennett and ask if I could come. They always said yes. This has always been home." The chance that he would, like some of his teammates from last year, head to the pros was likely much greater than most think. The process itself was something he enjoyed, and while he loved the challenge, the determination that waiting was his best move was not something that was met with worry despite it being a tough call. "It was very hard," Diakite admitted. "Some thought I was in a good position. Some thought I wasn't in a good position. My family and I, we didn't want to risk it. We wanted to make the best decision for me that was possible. I talked to my dad and he said, 'Mamadi, it's going to be hard,' but [he thought] I should come back and get better. "There's nothing to lose. It's not like I don't love Virginia. I love the staff, the coaches, the fans. Did you see how many fans were here today [for the home opener]? It was amazing. They were electric. So I wanted to come back and make sure we can get another trophy." Being at UVA without his longtime friends and now former teammates, though, has been a bit odd. After all, despite the fact that he enrolled early, Diakite was close to the 2016 recruiting class that included Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De'Andre Hunter. "I'm always talking about challenges and that stuff," he said. "Those guys were great for us. They made the game so much easier. De'Andre, give him the ball and it's a bucket. Ty Jerome, you don't have to move a lot, he'll find you — he's going to draw the whole defense to him and then pass it to you. And Kyle, don't even talk about it. You know he's going to hit shots. All of them, from half court in. "So not having them is weird. Once you lose people like that, you move forward. It's college. Some come in, some go, and you have to adjust to it. And that's the adjust- ment we're doing right now. We don't look perfect." Averaging 21.8 minutes per night as a third-year, with 22 starts in 38 games, Diakite scored 7.4 points and grabbed 4.4 rebounds per game for the Wahoos. Through the team's first three games this year, he's roughly dou- bled both numbers to 14.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest, both team highs. "This is his last year," Bennett said. "I think all of the experiences that he's had, from having to be patient early on and hav- ing to be a big part of certain games … and then going through the experience in the spring/summer of the draft process, all that has improved him. "He'll face this year as a player for UVA what he has not faced in the past, being a marked man and at times getting more opportunities to score within the system or within his strengths. I'm excited for him and I think he's worked hard. He's always full of life and energy, and I know he wants to lead this team to the best of his abilities." "I take it as a challenge," Diakite said. "I think that's one thing that makes me do bet- ter every time. Every time that I have to do something out of my comfort zone, I chal- lenge myself and tell myself, 'Okay, this is not easy, but I can do it.'" So how exactly did he go about taking the big step forward and preparing to be his team's go-to guy? "I worked," he said with a smile. "I worked really hard. Going through the pro- cess, coming back with Coach Bennett and the staff, they've helped me out a lot with my shot. "I've made many adjustments until I was able to find the right one and I stuck with that basically." So much of his experiences in Charlottes- ville have played out in the postseason, with the way the 2017-18 season ended and then his role in the title run. Those two years, Diakite believes, have prepared him and his team for what's ahead. "It's not only last season, it was also the season before," he explained. "That gave us a lot of momentum forward. A big change. That's the reason why we came back last year. Obviously, we weren't perfect — but we won the championship. Diakite was named to the NCAA All-South Re- gional Team after he hit a jumper at the buzzer to send UVA's Elite Eight game with Purdue to overtime, where the Cavaliers secured the win. PHOTO BY MATT RILEY/COURTESY UVA FOLLOWING UP STRONG Mamadi Diakite Has To Go From Role Player Who Made 'The Play' To A Go-To Guy

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