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A surging Mamadi Diakite leads Virginia to postseason success

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The redshirt junior has been instrumental in the Cavaliers’ run to the Final Four.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Virginia Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

To say Mamadi Diakite’s ACC tournament was underwhelming would be a bit of an understatement. The redshirt junior played 20 minutes across Virginia’s two games against NC State and Florida State, scoring a combined five points, went 2-for-7 from the field (1-for-1 from the line), and added three fouls, no blocks, and one turnover.

Virginia went 1-1 in those games, using a second half surge to take down NC State and falling by 10 points to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals.

Diakite’s absence from the stats sheet was a surprise as the 6-9 had been solid down the stretch for the No. 2 Cavaliers. While he was prone to streakiness, Diakite averaged 7.6 points per game in conference play and added nearly 2.1 blocks per game. Things were trending in the right direction for the big man who started 20 of Virginia’s 36 games so far this season.

The ACC tournament performance wasn’t good enough for Diakite, who made a point to schedule a one-on-one talk with his coach before the NCAA tournament started.

“I can’t exactly remember the words, but he said, ‘I’m ready.’ He said, ‘That wasn’t my best. I wasn’t quite where I needed to be or right in that ACC Tournament. I desperately want to do anything, absolutely anything I can to make this team advance’,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said on a Tuesday teleconference. “In his words, it wasn’t like ‘I’m back,’ but it was more like ‘I’m ready and I understand that I wasn’t what I was in other games.’ So, again, it was an interesting conversation.”

And ready he was. Diakite caught fire in the NCAA tournament, averaging 13 points, three offensive rebounds, six defensive rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game and going a combined 24-for-35 from two over the four-game span. His 11 rebounds against Oregon were a new career high, he matched his career high (four) in blocks against Purdue, and scored at least 14 points in three of the games.


His biggest moment, of course, came in the Elite Eight instant classic against Purdue as Diakite capped off the most improbable series of events with a game-tying shot at the buzzer.

“I don’t know. It happened. I was the person who was designed to take it, and I don’t know,” Diakite said at the podium after the win. “I took it, and it went in. I was happy and ready for the next five minutes. I don’t know how to talk about it. It was unbelievable.”

Unbelievable is right, but Diakite’s hard work and dedication over the course of the season made this a reality. Before the season started, Diakite went to Miami and worked with the trainers that have worked with Victor Oladipo and LeBron James. Now, he’s got his own “Joe Harris driving to Coach Bennett’s house” moment.

Going forward, Diakite will remain hugely important if the Cavaliers want to take this dream season even further and cap it off with a national championship. Auburn’s biggest threat in the post — Chuma Okeke — won’t be available on Saturday after tearing his ACL in the Tigers’ Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina. With Okeke out, only two players on the Auburn roster — Horace Spencer and Austin Wiley — come in at 6’8 or taller.

Virginia has been active on the offensive boards in the postseason, and that will be key again against an Auburn team that allows opponents to rebound 33.2% of their own misses (333rd out of 353 in KenPom). Diakite and fellow big man Jack Salt got a lot of run together against Purdue, a move that helped the Cavaliers settle in on both ends of the ball. That duo will be huge, as will Braxton Key and De’Andre Hunter against Auburn’s quick guards.

Mamadi Diakite is peaking at the right time of the season, and if his upwards trend continues, there could be more celebrating in his future.

Virginia and Auburn tip off at 6:09ET on Saturday, and the game will be televised by CBS.