CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a Virginia men’s basketball team still trying to find itself after an NCAA championship, it was helpful to reclaim its home turf.
The Cavaliers posted their biggest victory of the season, rallying for a 61-56 victory over fifth-ranked Florida State on Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia (14-6, 6-4) trailed for the majority of the game, finally taking the lead for good on a reverse lay-up by 5-foot-9 Kihei Clark with 1 minute remaining.
That put the Cavaliers ahead 57-56, but the outcome was not decided until the closing seconds.
Mamadi Diakite hit two free throws with 13.9 seconds remaining to give the Cavaliers some security before the Seminoles (17-4, 7-3) missed two rushed 3-point attempts in the final seconds.
Florida State had beaten Virginia 54-50 less than two weeks earlier in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I think we’ve been in a lot of these games,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “Offense matters to some extent, but it comes down to making plays. We did it with a couple of big stops, free throws and I thought Kihei was terrific.
Diakite finished with a game-high 19 points, going 4 for 4 from the line and swishing all three of his 3-point attempts.
Clark was 4 for 12 from the field, missing all of four of his 3-point attempts, but he was 7 for 7 from the free-throw line.
“Sometimes, size is misleading,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said of Clark, who is listed at 5 foot 9, although that may be generous. “Sometimes, when you are small and quick and fast, that has its advantages, too.
“He’s a very clever guy with the ball. I looked at some of the box scores, and he’s played 39 minutes. He might be small in stature but he has the biggest heart in the ACC. Guys like him have that special ‘it’ factor that you can’t really identify but he has it.”
Clark played 37 minutes and 43 seconds in Tuesday’s game and had played 40 or more minutes in three of the Cavaliers’ previous five games.
A third double-figure scorer for Virginia was Braxton Key, who had 13 points and nine rebounds, all on the defensive end. It is likely to be a memorable game for Key, who started the game wearing No. 2 and finished as No. 42 after ripping his jersey.
Virginia outrebounded the Seminoles 36-23, with Diakite and Key claiming nine apiece.
Virginia previously had beaten ACC opponents North Carolina and Virginia Tech at JPJ but had lost to Syracuse and North Carolina State after being favored in both game.
‘I’ve got to hand it to Virginia because I thought that they did a great job sticking to the game plan for the while 40 minutes,” said Hamilton, whose Seminoles were two-point favorites. “When we did get a few points ahead, I thought they did a great job of staying focused.
“We had several layups and wide-open jump shots that didn’t fall and they had some layups that went down. That allows a [Florida State] loss to a team that I thought deserved to win.”