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Hokie Hardwood: Clemson

By Grant Mitchell | December 15
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Photo: Matt Gentry

The Virginia Tech Hokies (5-1) defeated the #24 Clemson Tigers (5-1) in both teams’ first game of conference play Tuesday evening, 66-60.

The win was the Hokies’ second against a ranked opponent this season and a much-needed response to critics following a blowout loss to Penn State last week. This was also the first time that Clemson tasted defeat this season.

The Hokies approached the outing much differently than they had in games prior: Tyrece Radford appeared to be the primary ball handler, reprieving Wabissa Bede of his usual on-ball duties, frequently bringing the ball downcourt and initiating the offensive actions.

Head Coach Mike Young also maintained a concerted focus on involving Keve Aluma after underwhelming performances in two appearances prior. The big man was a frequent recipient of passes at the top of the key following decoy motions around the perimeter, allowing him the freedom to spot up from deep, hand the ball to a rotating guard or post up his defender. This wrinkle in the game plan allowed the Hokies to feel comfortable in the half-court tempo that Clemson prioritizes, eliminating the visiting team’s advantage.

Cartier Diarra was a key absence for coach Young in this game, unavailable due to COVID-related concerns. It was revealed after the final whistle that Diarra did not contract the virus but was opting out as a precaution. He may later rejoin the team, though a date has not been confirmed. In the meantime, Hunter Cattoor and Jalen Cone will be the likely recipients of increased playing time at the point guard position.

The Tigers have been known for their defense this season, allowing a measly 51.4 points per game to their opponents, but were largely incapable of slowing the Virginia Tech offense. Foul trouble on the part of Aamir Simms and Clyde Trapp forced Clemson to endure stretches without two of their starters, leaving the Hokie offense to pick at the scraps.

The Plot

Virginia Tech rolled out their usual starting five of Bede, Radford, Alleyne, Mutts and Aluma. This lineup has become Mike Young’s most consistent unit as the season has unfolded and is unlikely to change moving forward, barring injuries and pandemic protocols.

After an 0-4 shooting start for both teams, the Hokies established control over their adversaries. The switch to Radford as the point man increased the speed of transition and created opportunities for the sophomore guard to get downhill while the Hokie forwards snatched the missed shots, totaling seven offensive rebounds to Clemson’s four.

Naheim Alleyne contributed majorly to the Hokies’ first half dominance, starting three-for-three from the perimeter and constantly swinging the ball to the open man. This outburst came amidst another poor team display in distance shooting (31.3%), something that Mike Young will continue to monitor as the season draws on.

After leading the first half for all but 22 seconds, Tech’s advantage blossomed to 16 points with just under 13 minutes left in the second period. While the Hokies took this as a signal to relax, Clemson did not.

The two-man combination of Al-Amir Dawes and Aamir Simms torched the Tech defense, accounting for 16 of Clemson’s next 27 points, cutting the deficit to 57-55 with exactly two minutes to go.

What was set up to be a miraculous comeback was not to be, as Tyrece Radford slammed the door on any hopes of a Tiger victory: first by absorbing contact and hanging in the air to flip home an end-of-shot-clock layup with 59 seconds left, then hop-stepping his way to a reverse lay-in the next time down.

Naheim Alleyne and Hunter Cattoor put the finishing touches on the Hokies’ fifth triumph of the season, knocking home two free throws each.

The Players

Tyrece Radford was not only the offensive catalyst but the statistical standout, recording 15 points, two rebounds and two blocks. The second-year guard is emerging as the driving force in Hokie victories, supplanting Keve Aluma as Blacksburg’s main man.

Naheim Alleyne and Keve Aluma had identical box scores of 13 points, four rebounds and two assists in Tuesday’s bout: Alleyne contributed three treys while Aluma shot 9-12 from the charity stripe.

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Photo: Darryl Oumi

Hunter Cattoor provided much welcomed bench scoring, adding 11 points and six rebounds to his team’s totals. The Orlando, Florida native has made seven of fourteen three-point attempts this season and continues to be a marksman on the court.

The Pretenses

The Hokies entered the inter-conference matchup with hopes of restoring their place in the AP top-25, having fallen out after last week’s defeat at the hands of Penn State. The lone loss for Tech was a tough one: the Nittany Lions live and die by the three, and they lived a good life in Blacksburg. Izaiah Brockington led the way with 24 points while his squad combined to shoot 12-23 from deep, far outpacing the Hokies’ 6-22 night.

Meanwhile, Clemson had enjoyed an early season surge in basketball pride, proving that they are more than just a football school. As mentioned by Nick Parker in his game preview, Aamir Simms had been the focal point of the Tigers’ undefeated season entering Tuesday’s matchup. The senior forward was the only member of his roster to average double-digit points this season and deserved a majority of the credit for their initial success.

Though this contest was slated to occur in the first third of the teams’ campaigns, the implications will be paramount in determining the postseason ladder due to this year's shortened schedules. Both programs have showed promise thus far and will be likely players at the top of the final Atlantic Coast Conference standings.

The Postgame

“I think it’s premature… ‘We’re for real.’”

— Mike Young, Head Coach

Mike Young pumped the brakes on expectations for the Hokies’ season, implying a desire to approach each battle on a case-by-case basis. The Hokies have been ranked as high as 15th this season and are now 1-0 in conference play.

“Gutsy win tonight… complete team effort.”

— Chester Frazier, Associate Head Coach

Coach Frazier applauded the unity in his team’s victory, a trend that has become synonymous with Virginia Tech basketball.

Referencing a tweet from the Virginia Tech’s Men’s Basketball page, Tyrece Radford posted one simple phrase that pledged his allegiance to his head coach. Radford was huge for the Hokies and rewarded Mike Young’s confidence in him.

The Performance

Outside of taking their foot off of the gas in the second half, the Hokies looked the closest they had been to their Villanova performance since returning from the Mohegan Sun. Coach Young’s group managed to defeat a ranked, in-conference opponent despite subpar perimeter shooting, excess turnovers and only seven team assists.

While these mistakes will need to be corrected by the time the postseason rolls around, the ability to beat tough opponents during off nights is the mark of an elite team.

Mike Young flashed his wizardry as a basketball mind in the switches that he made to his approach and witnessed a resounding performance from his crew, reestablishing Virginia Tech as a feared foe for any opposition.

Up next for the Hokies is the fourth of six consecutive home fixtures against a resilient Coppin State (1-5) program that played #21 Duke to a 10-point differential back in November.

Blacksburg’s finest seem to be heating up: how hot will they get?