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Virginia relied on its defensive roots in Sweet 16 win over Oregon

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The Hoos are one win away from the Final Four thanks to a stout defensive performance against Oregon.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Oregon vs Virginia Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

To the casual observer, Virginia’s 53-49 win over Oregon on Thursday night/Friday morning was everything they hate about Bennett ball and the Cavaliers. Neither team reached 40% shooting from the floor, and the whole dang thing was played in 55 possessions. But to the Hoos, it was amazing.

“It wasn’t a masterpiece,” Tony Bennett told Allie LaForce after the game, “...but as the saying goes, survive and advance.”

And advance they did. The win pushed Virginia to 32-3 on the season, setting a new school record for wins in a single season. Most importantly, the win got Bennett and the Cavaliers one step closer to the ever-so-elusive Final Four that fans have been clamoring for.

As the score and shooting numbers indicate, nothing came easy for either team. Oregon doesn’t get rattled playing a low-possession game, and their matchup zone gave Virginia headaches all night. So the Cavalier defense stepped up and stepped up in a massive way.

Oregon had scoreless droughts of 3:15, 3:35, 4:06, and 5:39 throughout the course of the game. After Louis King hit his fourth three of the contest — and third straight for the Ducks — with 5:43 to put Oregon on top 45-42, the Virginia defense wouldn’t allow another field goal. Kihei Clark and Ty Jerome hit big threes to tie and retake the lead, respectively, and Virginia would be able to salt away the game at the line, but everything started on the defensive end.

With 4:42 remaining and the score knotted at 42, Bennett called a timeout, gathering his players in preparation for the final stretch. “He [Coach Bennett] called a set for us to run and he said, “But what matters is our defense,” Ty Jerome recalled after the game. “That’s what carried us all year, and that’s what’s going to take us as far as we can — as far as we want to go.”

The offensive set would end with De’Andre Hunter’s three-ball attempt getting blocked by Kenny Wooten, but Virginia dug in and Mamadi Diakite got his second steal of the game to give the ball back to the Hoos. On the ensuing possession, Jerome canned a deep three that put Virginia up for good.

Solid defense is not a surprise for fans following the Hoos. They’ve been near the top of the defensive efficiency rankings all season (currently No. 3) and hold opponents to a nation’s best 55 points per game. But overcoming a lackluster offensive performance with a true-to-its-roots, honest-to-God defensive clamp down was arguably the most Virginia way possible to win that game.

“Certain things have to be constants,” Bennett said Friday afternoon during the team’s media availability. “Offense can sometimes go in and out. We’ve been efficient most of the the year offensively, but not yesterday. A large part due to the Oregon defense and some of it was us not being as good as we’ve been, but we found enough ways, and the defense was there.”

Diakite’s development as a player has been pivotal in Virginia’s postseason success this season, and his 11 rebound, two block, and two steal performance was huge for the Cavaliers on Thursday night.

“Before we went back on defense, we didn’t score and when I looked up, we were very close so I said, ‘It’s time to buckle up and not let anything happen’,” Diakite said of the block. “When I went for the block, usually I smack it and someone else gets it, but I didn’t want to give any opportunity to the other team to get the ball, so I tried to just pin it.”

The Cavaliers will have their hands full with Purdue in the next game as the Boilermakers come in with the No. 4 most efficient offense on KenPom. Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline are coming off of 29 and 27 point performances against Tennessee, respectively, and the 7-1 Matt Haarms presents issues in the paint.

Purdue has played some outstanding defenses in the Big Ten as they had to face Michigan (No. 2 defense), Wisconsin (No. 5), and Michigan State (No. 10) over the course of the season. Saturday will be no different as the Hoos try and keep Edwards in check and limit the damage the Boilermakers do beyond the arc.

Tip off is scheduled for 8:49pm, and the game will be televised on TBS.