Hokie Hardwood: Louisville
The #19 Virginia Tech Hokies (8-2, 2-1) were defeated by the Louisville Cardinals (8-1, 3-0) in a ballgame between two opponents previously undefeated in conference play, 73-71.
This battle helped epitomize the reality of what Atlantic Coast Conference play will be like for the rest of the season as the Hokies have now played three league matchups that have been decided by a total of ten points.
Jalen Cone was a lone bright spot for Virginia Tech, recording a career-high 23 points on 7-14 shooting and 6-12 from deep.
VT looked out of sorts for large periods of the weeknight clash, having not played a game in eight days, and were beaten by the better team on the night. Even still, Head Coach Mike Young’s squad will be proud of how they competed and responded with their backs against the wall.
The Hokies opened on an 11-0 run thanks to two three-point contributions from Justyn Mutts and one from Wabissa Bede, only to allow nine unanswered points over the next few minutes. From there on, the Hokies seemed to be without any sort of rhythm until the closing moments of the contest.
Louisville’s stifling defense snatched four steals in the first eight minutes and denied most opportunities in the post, sending help defenders to Keve Aluma at every turn. The Hokie guards, namely Wabissa Bede and Tyrece Radford, were unable to properly dissect the Cardinals defense out of the pick and roll: Louisville would blitz the Hokies’ high screen and leave the roller unaccounted for, though that player never received the pass in space.
This forced the Hokies to play around the perimeter and throw meaningless passes that often ended with a three-point attempt from players with lower shooting averages. The Cardinals purposefully left these players open, signifying an intent to live with the results while sending more attention to the usual offensive threats.
The maroon and orange recorded 1-11 shooting streaks in both halves and were unable to get stops when the game was there to be taken over, a credit to the level-headedness of the Louisville team.
Jalen Cone single-handedly carried the Blacksburg boys through the end of the first half and lots of the second, scoring 11 points in the opening period and 12 in the closing. Cone was scorching hot from beyond the arc and demonstrated his ability to put the team on his back hthrough poor performances, a necessary trait come tournament time.
Nahiem Alleyne, Hunter Cattoor and Keve Aluma made some noise as the game drew to a close after being ineffective throughout most of the 40 minutes, though it was not enough in the end. A couple of clutch moments from Louisville guard Carlik Jones were just enough to see the game off after Cattoor missed a deep center court shot as time expired, leaving the Hokies with their first loss of ACC play.
Jalen Cone was mesmerizing Wednesday, scoring 23 points on 50% shooting to go with three rebounds and a steal. Cone was so extraordinary that he even converted a four-point play and nailed a twisting in-air shot off of a Tyrece Radford pass that most players could not dream of.
Nahiem Alleyne scored 15 points, 13 of which came in the second half, while poking three steals loose and dishing three assists. The sophomore guard also went 5-5 from the free throw line, including two big ones in the clutch. Alleyne responded well to a poor early-game performance and reaffirmed coach Young’s trust in his abilities.
Keve Aluma had 15 points and five rebounds, though was largely disappointing. The star forward only managed 2-8 shooting in the first half and missed lots of easy shots, including three free throws on eight attempts. Aluma failed to follow his big performance in kind and will need to rebound, literally and figuratively, for the Hokies to defeat their next opponent.
Virginia Tech entered Wednesday’s bout riding a four-game win streak, most recently defeating a dangerous Miami team, and had been rewarded with a new #19 rank by the AP.
Coach Young’s men have responded well to the challenges thrown at them and seem to be growing as a unit, a quality that will pay dividends later in the year.
The reemergence of Jalen Cone, now serving an even larger role on the offense, has been a sight to see for Hokie fans. The sophomore guard’s ability to light up defenses from outside regardless of coverage has been impossible to plan against and much needed by a team that had struggled from three early in the season.
Louisville, in a similar vein, had been riding a hot start to their campaign. The 7-1 Cardinals entered tip-off as favorites to win, according the ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and have become the “trendy” pick to top the conference ladder this season. Carlik Jones has led the way for the Cardinals, averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists through eight games, and has been extremely impressive since arriving from Radford over the summer.
“I really like my team… we’re going to play better Sunday, I am certain.”
Coach Young complimented his team in defeat, promising a response against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend.
“[Speaking on taking the challenge of taking over during a team drought] I definitely do, but [want] to elevate all of the guys on the floor with me… keep the guys motivated. That’s the role I tried to take on tonight.”
The Hokies' sharpshooter told the media that he willingly accepts the responsibility of leading his team during a rough stretch, though he hopes to bring the rest of his team with him as well.
“It’s the ACC. Every player got here for a reason.”
When asked about potentially overlooking the opposition, Justyn Mutts declared that there is talent all over the conference and nobody is to be taken lightly.
Though this outcome was not the start to the new year that supporters would have hoped for, it was a closely contested battle that is necessary for the development of the team.
The Hokies managed to hang around for most of the game despite being outplayed and are learning more about rotations and situational schemes that will come into play during the postseason.
A contested loss against another tournament team should not deter the selection community to a great extent: all that matters is bouncing back over the weekend.