LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In a return to the scene of some of its most miraculous moments, Virginia almost had another memory to savor Saturday.
In the end, the KFC Yum Center wasn’t as delicious for the Cavaliers, who fell to fifth-ranked Louisville 80-73.
Virginia (15-7, 7-5 ACC) trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half but rallied behind Tomas Woldetensae and Kihei Clark and briefly took the lead at 70-68 on a pair of Clark free throws with 3:25 remaining.
The Cardinals (21-3, 12-1) then went on a 6-0 run that reduced the Cavaliers to fouling in vain.
It was less than 12 months ago that Virginia rallied from a 12-point deficit to defeat the Cardinals 64-52 in Louisville. That was followed by a visit to the KFC Yum! Center for the NCAA South Regionals, where a late UVa rally lifted the Cavaliers past Purdue 80-75 in overtime to advance to the Final Four.
This year’s team, minus three 2019 NBA draft picks, has not been ranked since mid-January and was a 7 1/2-point underdog Saturday. Louisville had every reason to be up for the game, having lost the last nine contests between the teams.
“Our message was before the game: ‘Leave this place a better team,’ ” UVa coach Tony Bennett said, “and I think we did that today.
“We took a step in defeat. I can handle being beaten. I just don’t like losing and we didn’t lose today.”
It was the highest scoring total of the season for the Cavs, who got career highs of 27 points from the junior-college transfer Woldetensae and 24 points for Clark, who also had seven assists.
Defense comes first with Bennett, whose Cavaliers were holding opponents to 51.9 points per game, the Division I low coming into the weekend. UVa hadn’t given up more than 70 points in a game till Saturday.
Jordan Nwora had 22 points for the Cardinals, who had 15 second-chance points, which was a reflection of their 31-19 rebounding margin.
The Cardinals made 21 of 24 free throws and took advantage when Virginia was reduced to fouling in the closing minutes.
“We know that we could have won that one,” said UVa 7-footer Jay Huff, who had five rebounds. “We weren’t supposed to, rankings-wise, but in this league and especially this year, anybody can beat anybody.”
The teams meet again on March 7, the final day of the ACC regular season.
“We know that we can play with teams like this,” Huff said. “We’ve beaten a [Florida State] team that was ranked No. 6. It’s good to have that knowledge instead of just wondering.”
Clark played the full 40 minutes, as did Mamadi Diakite, who was 3-for-11 from the field, including 0-for-3 on 3-pointers, and had two rebounds and one block.
Louisville led by as many as 16 points in the closing minutes of the first half, but that’s happened before at the YUM! Center, where the Cardinals squandered a 13-point lead to UVa in the last 8:40 in 2018, with the Cavs winning 67-66 on a De’Andre Hunter heave at the buzzer.
“I give our guys a lot of credit,” said Mack, who is in his second season as the Cardinals’ head coach. “You get up as many points as we did and then see that lead evaporate — as Virginia has done so may times before. … I’m sure that was in the back of our guys’ minds.
“Our resiliency was what was needed. And you’re going to have to do that when you play against Virginia, who, in my opinion, is just getting better and better and has the looks of an NCAA Tournament team and it’s not even close.”
The Cavs didn’t disagree.
“I think we showed that we could play with anybody,” Clark said. “Obviously, it hurts because you want to leave here with a ‘W.’ But yeah, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”