Hokie Hardwood: Notre Dame
The #19 Virginia Tech Hokies (9-2, 3-1) defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-7, 0-4) in Blacksburg Sunday evening, 77-63.
While the “Super Wild Card Weekend” was going on, former and current football coaches Frank Beamer and Justin Fuente sat present as the hometown Hokies took care of business in Cassell thanks to a second half demolition.
The bench productivity was exceptional in this game as Jalen Cone and Hunter Cattoor combined for 33 points on 46.7% shooting from behind the arc. The sophomore duo has been instrumental in the Hokies’ success this season and proved their worth yet again.
The headline for the weeknight’s events was the Virginia Tech defense which, after allowing the Irish to shoot 55.2% from the field in the opening period, stifled the visitors to just 2-19 shooting over the final 20 minutes.
This victory came as the result of a total team effort and was a much-needed response to a heartbreaking loss against Louisville earlier in the week.
Sunday’s matchup was a true example of “a tale of two halves” as the Hokies were outgunned and outworked to start the game.
The usual starting five of Bede, Alleyne, Radford, Mutts and Aluma looked bereft of offensive ability through multiple stretches, struggling to create quality opportunities for themselves and their teammates.
The Fighting Irish did not make it easy on the Hokies, switching to a 2-3 zone defense just a few minutes into the first half and playing off of the Hokies’ lack of three-point shooting in the rotation.
The insertion of Jalen Cone shortly thereafter put an end to this as the renowned sharpshooter buried a curling three-ball from the corner just a few moments after checking in for his first bit of action. Cone went onto lead his team in first half scoring, putting 14 points on the board courtesy of four made threes.
Darius Maddox and David N’Guessan joined Cone and Hunter Cattoor off of the bench, earning more minutes for themselves as pure freshmen.
“They’re great teammates… ready to go when their number is called” claimed Head Coach Mike Young, justifying his selection based on the mental makeup of his two young assets.
Despite the injection of offensive efficiency from the non-starters, Virginia Tech struggled mightily on the defensive end. Notre Dame managed to find success out of the screen and roll and while pushing the ball in transition, mixing up the man assignments for the defending Hokies and nailing open shooters on the wings while their big men targeted smaller defenders in the post, ultimately helping them claim a 42-35 lead entering the intermission.
The closing half went much more along the lines of how the maroon and orange would have hoped: a 12-2 opening run and a resurgence in aggressiveness from the defense helped the Hokies steam ahead to a 47-44 lead, one that would go unrelinquished for the rest of the game.
Hunter Cattoor played five total minutes more than Wabissa Bede and took over the second half on both ends, drawing two charges and nabbing two steals while pulling off highlight plays like this three from the logo:
The Hokies were spurred to victory through their domination in key areas: Mike Young’s squad made more threes, recorded fewer turnovers and had over twice as many offensive rebounds as the Irish. These specifics will prove to be massive indicators of success as conference play continues to tighten up in the coming weeks.
Enough cannot be spoken of the shooting ability of Jalen Cone. The Walkertown, North Carolina native posted 18 points and a steal in Sunday’s win, single-handedly thwarting the success of the Notre Dame zone and using his movement to create space for his teammates. Cone has provided instant offense in every game since his return from a foot injury and is becoming one of the most important pieces of this Virginia Tech squad.
Hunter Cattoor turned in another sound performance, scoring 15 points, securing four rebounds and drawing two charges while scorching the net for 60% shooting from beyond the perimeter. With Wabissa Bede’s diminished effectiveness in the offense, caused by the opposing defenses encouraging his weak three-point shooting, Cattoor seems to be making a claim for the starting point guard spot. Forced to take over ball-handling duties after transfer Cartier Diarra opted out for COVID-related reasons, Cattoor’s intuitiveness on both ends of the court has proved to pay dividends.
Justyn Mutts, Keve Aluma and Tyrece Radford dominated the interior, snatching four offensive rebounds each while combining for 38 points and 27 total rebounds. Aluma in particular was especially aggressive, setting the tone for the game in the first half by hammering home a two-hand jam that shook the arena.
The three Hokie studs responded to criticism from the last time out and totally controlled the painted area, outplaying their competition at almost every turn.
VT entered tip-off having recently suffered their first loss to an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent this season, falling to the Louisville Cardinals 71-73 on Wednesday, January 6th.
The defeat presented a dichotomy in individual performances: Jalen Cone poured in a career-high 23 points while Tyrece Radford and Keve Aluma had their worst games of the season, totaling just 13 points and nine rebounds between the two of them.
The Hokies had made their return to the AP Top 25 at the top of the week in the #19 slot, the highest mark in the ACC and a vote of a confidence in the legitimacy of this team.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame had a week of rest prior Sunday's action following a one-point loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels eight days ago. The Irish have a surprise ACC Player of the Year candidate in Nate Laszewski who has averaged 17.2 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 59% from three over the course of his first nine games.
The Irish are an experienced squad capable of playing the best teams to the closest of margins.
“We’re not organizing any parades any time soon… Long way to go.”
The Hokies’ coach was quick to quell any suspicion of self-appointed achievement, stating that there are many games left in the upcoming schedule.
“I think I bring that energy and offensive spark to my team.”
The Virginia Tech marksman reflected on his role on the team, taking it as a challenge to provide offensive output every time that he enters the game.
“Trying to win the glass is something we do every night.”
Though the Hokies were one of the worst rebounding teams in college basketball last year, Keve Aluma pointed out the battle of the boards as a key to success for his unit this year.
Virginia Tech's Jalen Cone moves without the ball as well as any player in college basketball.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 11, 2021
A great example for young players to study. https://t.co/GqJuA6JLbK
A member of CBS Sports, Jon Rothstein, credited Jalen Cone's success as being derived from his off-ball movement, naming him one of the best in the nation at creating shot opportunities.
The victory over Notre Dame was a welcome sight for Hokie Nation: the maroon and orange saw improved productivity from those who struggled earlier in the week, an exemplary 20-minute stretch of defense and some of the swagger that Mike Young’s men carrier after their Villanova victory at the start of the season .
The Hokies continue to play down to their opponent at certain points, namely the first half of games, though they showed their class yet again by pulling out a 14-point victory.
Virginia Tech has exceeded expectations thus far: a loss to an unranked opponent may be enough to knock them out of the Top 25 next week, yet the weekend victory should restore faith from fans and the national media.
Next on the calendar for the Blacksburg faithful is a date with the #21 Duke Blue Devils Tuesday night in Blacksburg (January 12th).
The Hokies just shut down a Laszewski: soon they will hope to do the same to a Krzyzewski.