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Hokie Hardwood: Penn State

By Grant Mitchell | December 09
Alleyne penn st
Photo: Matt Gentry

The #15 Virginia Tech Hokies (4-1) were defeated by the Penn State Nittany Lions (3-1) Tuesday night, 55-75.

The Nittany Lions unquestionably put forth their best performance of the season, winning the turnover battle 14-5 while shooting 30-60 (50%) from the field and 12-23 (52.2%) from three.

Penn State would have had a high chance of defeating any team in the nation Tuesday night, shooting the way that they did. However, the reaction by the hometown Hokies was quite frightening in terms of postseason prospects.

The Plot

After a quick three from Wabissa Bede began the proceedings, Penn State deftly went on a 17-0 run and stole all of the momentum for the first half. Though Jalen Cone managed to briefly stop the bleeding after his introduction, notching eight points and an assist in his first three minutes, the rest of the roster were unable to follow his lead.

Virginia Tech failed to force a turnover in the first half while committing 10 of their own, struggled to find open looks, miscommunicated defensive assignments in the lane and on the perimeter, and for the second week in a row allowed their opponent to dictate the flow of the game.

As discussed in “Hokie Hardwood: VMI” the blueprint to defeating the Hokies was unearthed: and boy, did Penn State exploit this.

Interim Head Coach Jim Ferry simplified and modified the Keydets approach, instructed his men to have two bodies apply three-quarters court pressure while a third waited at half court to trap the ball handler. This frustrated and confused the Hokies guards, especially Wabissa Bede, who was a huge disappointment in a game that was set up for his experience to shine through. The fifth-year Point Guard seemed afraid to even bring the ball up, picking up his dribble and pivoting nervously before the defenders had entered his area.

Besides applying pressure, the Keydets often hedged and switched the high screen and roll to contain the Hokies deep-ball presence. Given that Head Coach Mike Young’s squad are known for layups and threes much more than their mid-range presence, the Nittany Lions defended with the intention of leaving space in the middle of the lane open.

The final key in Penn State’s defensive approach was double-teaming Keve Aluma. The visiting squad made it clear early on that the Hokies’ leading scorer would not get any easy touches inside, nullifying him to zero first half points.

The second half was no better than the first regardless of the one-point box score differential. The Nittany Lions made five of their first six deep-ball shots while Izaiah Brockington (24 points and eight rebounds) continued to be a flamethrower inside the arc, extending the blue and white’s lead to 29 points less than seven minutes into the final period.

Even worse, the Hokies failed in the final level around the rim as well: Keve Aluma and Cordell Pemsl were both responsible for miscommunicating help and recovers on different occasions, each resulting in two easy points for the visiting team.

This was a statement win for Penn State, who would have been 4-0 short of a miracle 19-point comeback against Seton Hall two days prior, and the first taste of defeat for Virginia Tech.

The Players

Jalen Cone was the lone bright spot for the losing Hokies, recording 11 points in his 20 minutes of action. Though he only shot 4-12 from the field, he was effective early and seemed to be the only player willing to tackle the challenge of a comeback. As the game wore on and desperation increased, Cone was force-fed the ball to chuck up three-point shots, ruining his percentages.

Keve Aluma scored eight points and grabbed 12 rebounds after being blanked in the opening half, though reminded fans of his skill in some of the garbage minutes at the end. While Aluma’s opening 20-minute disappearance is worrisome on the surface, it is not entirely his fault. His guards were being stifled at the point of attack and struggled to feed him the ball, and he was double-teamed whenever they were successful in their distribution. Mike Young and Aluma will have to construct a game plan capable of forcing the rock into their leading scorer’s hands regardless of defensive coverage.

Aluma penn state
Photo: Matt Gentry

Naheim Alleyne was the second-highest scorer, knocking home 10 for the good, though was very much a non-factor. Alleyne missed an easy layup that would have gone for an and-one, shot 37.5% from the field and did not seem to care until the second half.

Wabissa Bede, as previously mentioned, put forth a disheartening performance. As a graduate student with tremendous postseason experience, he should have been able to slow the game down and execute his team’s offensive sets. Bede was overwhelmed by the Nittany Lions on-ball pressure and seemed to lose confidence in himself despite hitting some clutch shots early in the season.

There’s not much to talk about for the other players: Justyn Mutts scored zero points, Tyrece Radford only managed four, and the freshmen put minutes under their belts as the game drew to a close. Outside of that, there was nothing noteworthy.

The Pretenses

Virginia Tech entered Tuesday’s contest with a perfect 4-0 record and #15 ranking nationally, having leapfrogged archrival UVA in the most recent AP top-25 list.

The highlight win of the Hokies’ young season came on November 28th when they defeated then #3 Villanova 81-73 in overtime. Keve Aluma established himself as a potential all-ACC member in that game, scoring 23 points and snatching eight rebounds at the Mohegan Sun.

In stark contrast to a congested early season schedule, the boys from Blacksburg were allocated five days of rest between their closely contested battle against VMI last Thursday and Tuesday’s matchup against Penn State. Though the Hokies were able to play on their preferred court, the missing Cassell Guard dampened the usual excitement that comes with a home stand.

This has been the year of the transfer for VT, as the combination of Keve Aluma (formerly of Wofford), Justyn Mutts (previously of Delaware) and Cordell Pemsl (graduate transfer from Iowa) went into tip-off leading the team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and field goal percentage. Only Wabissa Bede’s steals total disrupted the statistical dominance of the first-year Hokies, though Keve Aluma was tied for that mark as well.

Meanwhile, Penn State travelled to southern Virginia riding a 2-1 record, having defeated VMI and VCU but fallen to Seton Hall over the previous weekend. Seth Lundy’s 22.3 points per game provided the lion’s share of offensive firepower through their first three games, and the sophomore forward appears to be bursting with talent.

Lundy has made huge advancements in his game despite clocking just 14.8 minutes per contest as a freshman, improving his averages in points, assists, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage from last season.

Since taking over as head coach at the end of October, Jim Ferry has implemented a style of play that makes scoring seem effortless at times. The highly revered offensive guru has elevated the Nittany Lions since his arrival at the University four years ago, guiding his players to school records and all-time Big 10 performances in scoring and shooting percentages.

Now that Ferry is running the show in a Power Five Conference, his overall basketball acumen will be on full display while the Penn State administration decide whether to extend his contract or find a replacement Head Coach. So far, he is making good on his opportunity.

The Postgame

“I don’t think we’re shooting it particularly well right now, but I don’t think it’s a deep concern.”

— Mike Young

Mike Young downplayed his team’s shooting woes despite averaging 41.5 FG% and 23.1 3PT% over their last three games.

“They popped us right in the mouth and we didn’t respond very well. That’s a concern.”

— Mike Young, again

Coach Young alluded to the lack of a response by his team, implying that attitudes must change moving forward.

The Performance

This game was a slap to the face for many members of Hokie Nation. Penn State dominated their team in ways that they had not done to inferior teams like Radford and VMI and seemed ill-prepared to face the intensity of a fight that was brought to them.

Mike Young will be kicking himself for being outsmarted defensively, again, and will need to explore changes to his offensive system before next Tuesday’s clash with Clemson.

It is unlikely that the Hokies will drop out of the top-25 rankings, though they must be able to bounce back with a result for the sake of their record and their morale. Conference play begins next week, and losses will become more detrimental than they already were.

Perfection cannot be expected of any team, and Coach Young can use this game as a teachable moment for his young roster.

Tweet @SonsofSatVT with your thoughts on how the team will look next week and who the star performers will be.