Hokie Hardwood: Miami
The #24 Virginia Tech Hokies (8-1) defeated the Miami Hurricanes (4-3) in Blacksburg, Virginia Tuesday evening, 80-78.
This matchup was the first for both teams following a brief Christmas hiatus and did not disappoint the onlooking fans.
The two rivals battled it out for the entire 40 minutes, exchanging runs and bursts of momentum before finally deciding the outcome on a missed game-winner from Miami guard Isaiah Wong.
Though the Hokies would have preferred to have kept their 17-point lead through the end of regulation, Head Coach Mike Young and his boys will take another conference win in a tune-up game before embarking for Charlottesville on Saturday for a date with the Cavaliers.
The opening minutes were filled with explosions of energy from both sides, fresh off of their only breaks of the season. Both teams looked to get out in transition and swing the ball as fast as they could, treating what was supposed to be a basketball game with the pace of a track meet.
The Hokies made it clear from the onset that they were going to utilize both of their forwards’ activity on all levels of the half court to reduce the advantage of the Hurricanes’ size. Both Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma continually floated between the post and the perimeter, aggressively seeking shot opportunities and exploiting mismatches they were presented with.
Darius Maddox made his first appearances outside of garbage time this season, though he was a non-factor, demonstrating Mike Young’s commitment to developing the younger players on his team. This has become especially important due to the absence of fifth-year guard Cartier Diarra who had previously opted out indefinitely for COVID-related concerns.
The Hokies took a 42-33 lead into halftime despite Miami shooting 51.9% from the field, largely due to a plus nine differential in turnovers.
The second half was much more inline with the Hokies’ usual method of attack: a couple of threes, some well-executed fast breaks and efficiency in the post allowed the maroon and orange to capture the largest lead of the game with just over 16 minutes to go, 56-39. However, the Hurricanes refused to go away.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Wong, reduced to just three points in the first half, caught fire and helped his team storm back to a 75-68 deficit before an end-of-shot-clock jumper from Keve Aluma put the Hokies back up by nine with 1:31 to go.
An exchange of free throws and two threes from Miami’s Matt Cross and Harlond Beverly later, the scoreboard read 80-78 in favor of Virginia Tech with just 26 seconds remaining.
Isaiah Wong, the hero of last year’s triple-overtime victory over the Hokies, called for an isolation on Tyrece Radford with his team’s final possession: Wong gave Radford a couple of moves before launching a three that hit both sides of the rim, eventually stumbling out and effectively giving the Hokies the win. Justyn Mutts missed two free throws on the other end but a Wabissa Bede steal saw the clock run out as the Hokies moved to 8-1 on the season.
Keve Aluma put on an All-American performance against the ‘Canes, totaling a career-high 26 points on 9-16 shooting, six rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal. Aluma was the most aggressive he had been since the upset over then #3 Villanova in the second game of the season and dominated every aspect of the contest. Should he continue this level of performance, Virginia Tech will become a viable contender for top dog in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Justyn Mutts had a tremendous output Tuesday evening, knocking home a season-high three treys en route to a 15 point, nine rebound and three steal performance. Mutts has become beloved by Hokie nation for his tremendous energy and competitiveness, though he found a way to couple these intangibles with sustained production through both halves.
Tyrece Radford quietly had a much-needed performance, recording 13 points on 66% shooting from the field along with nine rebounds and clutch defending in the closing moments. Radford’s consistent presence enabled VT to fly in transition while remaining resolute on defense and on the boards. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana native has demonstrated his value time and time again and continues to be one of the most well-rounded players in the conference.
The Hokies entered the post-Christmas stretch of league games with a 7-1 record, having defeated two ranked opponents in the process. VT defied the early odds of regular play, though they still needed to prove themselves following a similar start last year that culminated in a tumultuous run of form against ACC opponents.
The key to Tech’s success entering Tuesday’s faceoff had been in their versatility: all of the players on Mike Young’s roster provide different attributes that have allowed the VT coach to intermingle players in different rotations depending on what the flow of the game dictates. This level of adaptability has proven difficult to account for by opposing coaches as the Hokies have adjusted their game plans to counteract the strengths of their adversaries.
The front-runner for Blacksburg’s player of the year is junior transfer Keve Aluma, formerly of Wofford College, who averaged 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and a block per game through his first eight outings in Hokie colors. The big man added an outside shot to this repertoire last offseason and has been the focal point of coach Young’s attack, initiating sets or providing screens on the perimeter to get the offense going.
Meanwhile, the Miami Hurricanes posted an early 4-2 record despite losing their best player and starting point guard Chris Lykes for four games (of which they lost two). Sophomore guard Isaiah Wong picked up the slack in Lykes’ absence, scoring 19.3 points per game during that stretch.
The Hurricanes roll out an incredibly tall roster with a pair seven-footers at center and 6’10 and 6’11 forwards to boot, giving them a clear advantage in size over most teams they encounter. This often creates mismatches on both ends and makes them an unwanted opponent on any team’s schedule.
“We won. Didn’t play very well… sometimes you take a win and keep on moving.”
Mike Young stated that there was room for improvement from his side, though he will happily take the win and continue forward.
“We have more people with motors that can keep the team going.”
The sophomore complimented his teammates after the victory, telling the media that the Hokies are full of impact players that can contribute to winning games.
“I just wanted to be aggressive and try to help the team win… just want to win.”
The Hokies’ star man, fresh off of a career night, revealed that he will remain even keeled as he prepares himself for battle against UVA on the second of the new year.
Packer and Durham: “Virginia Tech has moved from a middle tier team to a top tier team in the ACC”— Everything VT Basketball (@EverythingVTB) December 29, 2020
...not bad for year #2 in the Mike Young era
The TV commentators for Tuesday's battle were complimentary of the Hokies and their future prospects, boding well for the upcoming schedule.
Tuesday’s defeat of Miami marked Virginia Tech’s second conference win and was a necessary test before they face their archrivals on Saturday. The Hokies were confronted with varying challenges and a hungry opponent yet were equal to the occasion.
This type of competition is a glimpse of what can be expected for the rest of the season, given the stark contention for the top spot in the conference ladder. Thankfully for Hokie fans, their team has started this season with consecutive wins, something that could not be said for last year’s squad.
Yet another week and Mike Young’s roster keeps on poppin’: just how far will they be able to go is the million-dollar question.