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Hokie Hardwood ACC Edition: North Carolina

By Grant Mitchell | March 11
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Justyn Mutts taking his defender off the dribble (Photo: Maggie Boulton).

The Virginia Tech Hokies were defeated by the North Carolina Tar Heels in Greensboro, North Carolina Thursday night, 81-73.

UNC’s size and constant pressure on the offensive glass wore down the Hokies over the course of the evening’s events, giving them the momentum to overcome a three-point halftime deficit via second chance opportunities. The Tar Heels are ranked first in the nation in rebounding margin and offensive rebounds per game and they demonstrated their abilities in the closing 20.

Justyn Mutts and Tyrece Radford’s heroics were a welcome sign after a 12-day layoff between games for the Hokies, though misfires from Keve Aluma and other role players left Mike Young’s bunch searching for answers in the waning moments.

North Carolina looks to be a serious threat for the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and, just maybe, the NCAA Tournament.

The Plot

The Hokies came out looking fierce and organized, two qualities that were lacking after returning from their previous COVID pause that resulted in a 16-point loss to Georgia Tech.

Wabissa Bede was active early: the fifth-year guard probed the lane intently, creating opportunities for his teammates while managing to bring a bubbling intensity to the point of attack defensively.

Tyrece Radford was put in a number of isolation opportunities, most of which went for baskets. Radford deposited a couple of mid-range jumpers along with a few nice driving buckets inside, putting the oversized UNC defenders on their heels.

Meanwhile, UNC found themselves unsuccessful in their typical style of attack. The Hokies sagged off of perimeter players and prepared to rebound, limiting the close-to-home Heels to just two offensive rebounds in the opening frame.

It was a real team effort in the first half on both ends. Hunter Cattoor nailed an open three shortly after entering the proceedings and David N’Guessan dumped in a nice layup around the basket after flashing open in the paint while Cordell Pemsl provided quality defensive minutes inside.

After twenty minutes, Tyrece Radford and Justyn Mutts had both found their way to 14 points with a pair of efficient shooting performances.

The first half game plan was executed perfectly and Virginia Tech looked like a legitimate threat to be the best team in the conference on any given night. Coach Young’s crew rocked into the intermission with a 35-32 lead, matching UNC in offensive rebounds and winning the turnover battle by three.

Coming out of the halftime break, Justyn Mutts established himself as the clear threat offensively. Second-team all-ACC member Keve Aluma appeared disconnected after being limited to 1-8 shooting in the first half, and the junior transfer from Delaware took it upon himself to carry the load.

The Hokies continued their back-and-forth battle with the sixth-seeded Heels until the twelve-minute mark hit, at which point the train derailed.

Armando Bacot and the UNC big men began to snatch every missed shot in sight, gifting second-chance opportunities for their team and punishing the Hokies diminutive height relentlessly.

On the other end, Justyn Mutts refused to lose sight of the goal and continued his stampede to the hoop with a couple of ferocious drives, no one more resounding than this thunderous slam in the UNC paint.

While Carolina was torturing VT’s tired legs on the offensive glass Mutts still seemed to have adrenaline coursing through his veins, almost taking it as a sign of disrespect that his team was losing. The junior forward has improved drastically since his arrival in Blacksburg and put forth his best performance of the campaign, filling the role of “the guy” in this season’s biggest stage so far.

Naheim Alleyne came out of his shell in the second half and knocked down four three-pointers, all of which kept Tech hanging around in what became a fruitless attempt to match Mutts’ comeback effort.

The Hokies managed to shrink the UNC advantage to five points with a few minutes left but were unable to connect multiple defensive stops while UNC made key perimeter shots in the clutch, opening up the lead just enough for them to feel comfortable.

The Hokies fell but did so admirably, fighting the tallest team in the conference with an undersized roster to the very end.

The Players

Justyn Mutts was spectacular despite the final result, totaling 24 points on 10-16 field goal shooting (3-5 3PT) and eight rebounds in a team-high 36 minutes of action.

Mutts furthered his hot scoring streak after averaging 14.3 points in four contests prior: his mark of 24 points notched a personal best in Hokie colors and tied the second-highest total of his collegiate career.

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Justyn Mutts rising up for a slam (Photo: Maggie Boulton).

One of Mike Young’s newest gems appears to be taking the leap in front of everyone’s eyes, demanding the ball and respect from his defenders before shrugging them off effortlessly. If the Hokies can couple Mutts’ performance tonight with increased productivity from the team’s leading scorer in Keve Aluma, they are easily a second-weekend team in the Big Dance.

Tyrece Radford recorded the fifth 20-point game of his two-year career, shooting 8-13 and adding six rebounds to his contributions.

“Boots” was unstoppable in the first half, mixing in increasingly apparent mid-range jumpers with athletic drives against taller defenders. If it weren’t for UNC deploying six players at or above the height of 6’10, his galvanizing performance would likely have blown any other team off of the court.

Wabissa Bede deserves special recognition for his performance, doling seven assists and swiping two steals from the opposition. Unfortunately for Bede and Hokie fans at home, however, he was blanked in the scorecard (0-5 FG).

A couple of missed opportunities around the rim were not all that determinant in the final outcome, though they could have provided an extra cushion in what seemed to be a secure lead at one point. Knowing Bede’s mental toughness and overall intelligence, he is likely to be back with a vengeance his next time out.

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Wabissa Bede controlling the rock (Photo: Maggie Boulton).

The Pretenses

Despite the plethora of inner-league bouts this season, the Hokies and the Tar Heels never faced off in the regular season.

ACC Coach of the Year Mike Young and Virginia Tech had been held out of action for twelve days due to issues in contact tracing within the program, though no positive results were yielded. Reps become more important than rest entering a tournament and a lack of rhythm seemed inevitable.

Keve Aluma has been the steady figure for the Hokies this season, averaging 15.9 points and 8 rebounds per contest, while wings Justyn Mutts and Tyrece Radford have been playing especially well as of late.

North Carolina, on the other hand, had just played the night before. They defeated the eleventh-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish by the count of 101-59, scoring 50 points in the first half and 51 in the second.

UNC is the best rebounding team in the nation and rotates their big men frequently to keep fresh, monstrous figures camping under the basket at all times.

The Postgame

“We did not play bad tonight- we did not play a poor game tonight. Just not enough.”

— Mike Young, Head Coach

The Hokies’ man at the helm praised his squad for their performance and was impressed by how his team competed after the pause, though he acknowledged that UNC deserved the win.

“We’re not going to blame the loss on our conditioning… credit to UNC.”

— Wabissa Bede, guard

The team captain chose to not make excuses for the final result and was complimentary of the eventual winners, North Carolina.

“Definitely one of our most physical games of the year… just couldn’t get it done tonight.”

— Justyn Mutts, forward

The Hokies man of the match had a smile on his face as he shared his thoughts in the postgame presser, seeming to be jovial to have competed in such an important and intense contest.

The Performance

All in all, this was a moral victory for the Hokies.

They attacked the Tar Heels in the first half in a way that most teams cannot despite a clear discrepancy in size and depth.

Mike Young enforced a brilliant game plan and his out-of-action team came out fully locked in, the sign of an excellent coach.

The Hokies have been viewed as anywhere from a six to an eleven seed by the national bracket-makers and they will present a tough matchup for their first-round opponent. An eight/nine seed, however, comes as the mark of death for most teams, leaving them to battle the #1 seed in the second round.

The Hokies will have to wait another year to compete for the ACC title but they will be back, returning 12 of the 14 active members of their roster with the chance of retaining seniors Cordell Pemsl and Wabissa Bede via an extra year of eligibility granted during the COVID season.

Selection Sunday awaits for the Blacksburg boys: here’s to a favorable draw.