CHARLOTTESVILLE — Yale center Sam Downey thought he was about to end the drought. With his team’s deficit ballooning into double digits, Downey rose for a routine layup that would have registered the Bulldogs’ first points in a five-minute span against No. 8 Virginia on Sunday afternoon.
He didn’t see Mamadi Diakite flying across the baseline. Virginia’s spring-loaded freshman soared above the rim to pin Downey’s attempt against the glass and keep Yale’s scoreless misery going for another three minutes midway through the second half.
“The team needed me to step up and block more shots,” said Diakite, who finished with four blocks and five points. “That is what I did.”
The Cavaliers’ eight-minute defensive stand propelled them to a 62-38 victory before 14,242 at John Paul Jones Arena. Eight players filled the scoring column for Virginia (3-0), but it was Diakite’s defensive prowess that brought the crowd to its feet.
Diakite said afterward that he prefers swatting shots to scoring points. That showed when the 6-foot-9 forward — a two-time Virginia Independent Conference high jump champion while at Blue Ridge School in St. George — upstaged Isaiah Wilkins’s block with a spectacular rejection of his own off the ensuing loose ball three minutes from halftime. Diakite then converted a layup on the other end to prompt a Yale timeout and break the Cavaliers out of a sluggish first-half stretch that saw them miss 14 of their first 17 field goal attempts.
After the game, Virginia senior London Perrantes shook off a comparison between Diakite and high-flying former Cavalier Justin Anderson, now in his second year with the Dallas Mavericks.
“I don’t think Justin’s athletic ability compares to Mamadi’s. Mamadi’s is through the roof,” said Perrantes, who finished with eight points and seven assists. “We see some stuff in practice that is like unreal. We have to double-take and actually stop practice to think about what he just did.”
Diakite’s performance may soften the blow dealt to Virginia’s front court earlier in the week. Redshirt junior forward Austin Nichols was dismissed from the team Friday following an unspecified violation of team rules, three days after registering 11 points in the Cavaliers’ 72-32 romp over Saint Francis (N.Y.).
Nichols’s absence didn’t hinder Virginia on Sunday. The Cavaliers outrebounded Yale, 41-28. The 6-7 Wilkins had a team-high nine.
“It’s a chance for the guys in the program now to tie it tighter and come together,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said.
Yale (2-1) finished second in the country last season in rebounding margin (+10.9), having led the Ivy League in rebounding each of the past five years. The Bulldogs, fresh off their highest win total (23) since 1907, outrebounded Washington 42-29 in a rousing 98-90 road upset to open the season.
The Cavaliers’ defense made certain there wouldn’t be another upset. Yale entered with five players averaging in double figures but produced only one Sunday. And a Yale team that prides itself on protecting the ball posted 14 turnovers and seven assists.
“What they did to us is normally our recipe for success,” Yale Coach James Jones said.
Marial Shayok came off the bench five minutes into the game to lead the Cavaliers in scoring for the second time in three games. The junior swingman notched 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting, at one point converting three straight buckets to key Virginia’s backbreaking 16-0 run in the second half. The Bulldogs managed only five points in the contest’s final 15 minutes.
Virginia’s confidence showed as Kyle Guy stepped to the free throw line with three minutes remaining. After Guy hit the first, someone from the student section shouted to the freshman guard, “Nice man bun!” Guy laughed and gave a thumbs up, then swished his second attempt. He finished with 12 points off the bench.
“Yeah, I’m not a big fan of that [hairstyle],” Jones said. “But I guess if he was going to come in and play for me like he did tonight that might be okay.”