Saturday’s game between the No. 3 Virginia Cavaliers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was an enjoyable one, given you were rooting for the visiting squad. The Hoos shot well (52% from the field), connected from outside (44%), scored at least 40 points in each half, and only turned the ball over twice.
The most fun part of the game, however, may have been the block party thrown by Virginia third year forward Mamadi Diakite. He came into the game with 17 blocks in 18 games, just shy of one per game. Against the Irish, Diakite exploded for a career-high four blocks, and a foul narrowly kept his fifth from counting.
Here they are in all their glory:
The first came with 5:27 remaining in the first half as Diakite rejected a shot from Nikola Djogo. Virginia led comfortably at the time, up 30-15 on Notre Dame. His other three came in the second half, helping stave off any hope the Irish may have had at a comeback. Diakite spread the love around, as T.J. Gibbs, Dane Goodwin, and John Mooney could all commiserate with Djogo for being on the receiving end of a massive rejection.
Diakite worked out with trainers in Miami this past offseason in the hopes of seeing his verticality improve, specifically in rebounding and blocking. That work is paying off as the 6-9 big man surpassed last year’s block total (16 blocks) in Virginia’s Tuesday game against Wake Forest. He’s up to 21 blocks on the season, and ranks 84th in the nation (per KenPom) with a block percentage of 7.5%. For comparison, Zion Williamson is 118th, with a 6.2% block percentage.
It’s not just his blocking that has made Diakite a better defensive player this season. Against Notre Dame, when Mooney stretched the Pack Line and started getting hot from three, Bennett subbed in the third year for Jack Salt.
“I thought Mamadi was a key in this game,” Bennett told media after the game. “When they cut [UVA’s lead] to 12, we were having a little trouble. Mooney stepped out and hit a couple 3s, we weren’t getting back, and it was a poor stretch defensively for us. I re-inserted Mamadi, and his quickness, I thought, defensively allowed us to guard Mooney at the 3-point line.”
With the Hoos leading by 12, Diakite re-entered the game. The Irish would get no closer as he corralled an offensive rebound led to a three from Ty Jerome to push the lead to 16 (after a Hunter free throw). Up 18, Diakite got his third block. Up 20, his fourth. Virginia was able to cruise to the easy 27-point road win and the 18-1 record.
“The one thing the coaches have always loved about him, I think, since the day they recruited him, was his rim protection,” Jerome said after the game. “And him blocking shots is going to keep making our defense harder to score against. His play’s been huge for us.”
For the season, Diakite is averaging 6.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game. He has an eFG% of 57.4% and is connecting on 40% of his threes. With six games in double figures scoring and his increased presence defensively, Diakite is becoming a huge piece for Tony Bennett and the Hoos.