On the basketball court, Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite leaves subtlety to smaller teammates whose games are predicted more on finesse than power. The 6-foot-9 forward-center instead gains the most enjoyment from two-handed dunks or an authoritative block.
Even his hair stands out in a crowd, dyed a golden hue on top in a nod to when he played soccer as a youth in his native Guinea.
Diakite’s contributions were unmistakable as well during Friday’s 71-56 win against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb. The redshirt junior came off the bench for 17 points and a career-high nine rebounds to help top-seeded Virginia reach the NCAA tournament’s round of 32.
The Cavaliers (30-3) will face No. 9 seed Oklahoma (20-13) on Sunday at Colonial Life Arena for the right to advance to the South Region semifinals in Louisville.
“We know how talented he is and how much he can impact this team,” Virginia junior forward Braxton Key said of Diakite. “Whenever he makes an impact offensively or defensively, it’s huge for our team, and it takes more pressure off the big three.”
That trio would be guard Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and wing De’Andre Hunter, whose 23 points, including 17 in the second half, against the Runnin’ Bulldogs ensured there would be no repeat of last season’s historic loss to Maryland-Baltimore County, when Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a 16.
Following the victory, Hunter made certain to mention how much space he was able to carve out inside because of Diakite, who draws heightened attention from post defenders in part because of his offensive-rebounding prowess.
Four of Diakite’s rebounds were offensive on Friday, a major reason the Cavaliers overwhelmed Gardner-Webb in second-chance points, 19-5.
“Guys start to load up on him when he gets in the post,” said Hunter, the ACC defensive player of the year. “When he can get offensive rebounds and give us second-chance opportunities, guys are usually open, and we can hit open shots from that.
“When he’s playing well, I feel like we’re a much better team.”
As a player who places a premium on his defensive responsibilities, Diakite still makes time to polish his post moves and extend his shooting range to the degree where he feels comfortable attempting three-pointers, if only on rare occasions.
He’s 5 of 12 this season from beyond the arc after attempting none in 2017-18. Whenever Diakite does make a three-pointer, it energizes the rest of the team, much like one of his trademark blocks into the first few rows of seats at John Paul Jones Arena.
Among the first indications Diakite had been working on his jump shot came in a game at Syracuse last season. He scored 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, making several jumpers from awkward angles along the baseline and while falling away from the basket.
“I think he’s just gotten better and better,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “He does have touch. It’s just in increments. It’s just gotten better every year. I think it’s just maturity. It’s experience. He’s always, I would say, a little newer to the game than most kids from America.
“He’s showed great flashes, and that’s become more consistent. He had a really good outing [on Friday] in a big-time setting.”
Diakite’s point total against Gardner-Webb was the second highest of his career and his most since collecting 14 on Feb. 23 during a 64-52 victory over Louisville in which Virginia trailed by a dozen in the second half.
He’s averaging career highs in points (7.2) and rebounds (3.9) in an expanded role since the graduation last season of Isaiah Wilkins, the 2018 ACC defensive player of the year.
“He’s terrific,” Sooners Coach Lon Kruger said of Diakite. “He’s long, rangy in there. He did a great job [on Friday] of catching it a couple times in a crowd and just collecting himself and letting the defense kind of make a mistake and then score.”
Diakite played 26 minutes against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, more than his previous two games combined. It underscored the need to remain engaged in the proceedings regardless of substitution patterns.
Even though Diakite began the game as a reserve, he started the second half in place of regular starter Jack Salt, who played only five minutes, matching a season low for the redshirt senior.
“It’s just being locked in and being dialed in, getting ready for your name to be called because you never know what’s going to happen,” Diakite said. “Someone may be in foul trouble, and you might the one that they have to call in order to help, so being ready is the most important thing.”