Tigers Claw Past the Hokies in Primetime Slugfest
The Virginia Tech Hokies were left to rue missed opportunities as they were defeated 69-61 by the #9 Memphis Tigers in the Barclays Center Wednesday.
“We weren’t ourselves,” said a calm Mike Young after the game finished, citing his lack of squad rotation as a pitfall in the proceedings.
The Hokies lost the battle of the bench 26-5 to the Tigers, who only received 15 points from their two leading scorers, Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates— 13.3 fewer than their combined season average. Memphis will move on to play the Iowa State Cyclones in the final of the Upsie NIT Season Tip-Off, while the Hokies will play the #25 Xavier Musketeers for third place.
Between the Lines
Naheim Alleyne finished with a game-leading and season-high 21 points, while Keve Aluma had a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double in a losing effort for the Hokies. DeAndre Williams stepped up on the eve of Thanksgiving with 16 points and 10 boards for the Tigers.
Storm Murphy was off the mark in his first primetime appearance for VT, totaling five points, two assists, and six turnovers. The Tigers made it a point of emphasis to continually stick different defenders on the Hokies’ point guard, often picking him up full-court and trapping him when they could.
“[Virginia Tech] had one primary ball-handler in Storm [Murphy],” said Memphis Head Coach Penny Hardaway after the contest. “We wanted to pressure him and take his legs from him.”
Hardaway’s plan not only worked, as the Wofford transfer finished 2-8 from the field and 0-3 from three, but it shone when the career 84-percenter nearly air-balled his first free throw of the night. Murphy ended up playing 39 minutes, but his impact was nearly totally nullified by the constant pressure of the opposing guards.
On the positive end of the spectrum, the Hokies’ vicious defense held Memphis— a team with two projected future top-five NBA Draft picks— to 59 points until the final 1:34. Hunter Cattoor deserves a tremendous amount of praise for his stifling defense on Bates in particular, while Justyn Mutts also had a strong defensive outing, closing his account with seven points, 12 rebounds, and four steals.
VT had led the country in points allowed per game entering the midweek affair, and they validated their plaudits on the national stage.
A Game of Moments
Both coaches would have gone into halftime saying that they played terribly and still had a chance to win. The game was ultimately decided by Memphis seizing more opportunities than Virginia Tech, who certainly had their chances.
Although Keve Aluma, a preseason first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference player, finished with a double-double, he left multiple rebounds in the air, missed bunnies around the rim, and whiffed on three dunk attempts. The big man has faced criticism for “floating” through games and shying away from contact, and at times, those criticisms were manifested on the court once again.
Naheim Alleyne also had an opportunity to brush off contact and put in a layup to cut the Memphis lead to three with 0:48 left, only to leave the ball hanging on the rim after Justyn Mutts had ripped a steal at the top of the key to start the fast-break.
On a broader scale, VT as a whole went 2-12 from three in the second half, virtually eliminating themselves from contention. The team’s struggle culminated with a 4:17 scoreless stretch in the closing minutes, failing to expand upon the one-point lead that they took for the first time with 4:36 remaining.
The Hokies also wound up with their season's first negative assist-to-turnover ratio (13 to 10). With players faltering in key moments and an overall struggle to put the ball in the hole, the maroon and orange's shortcomings eventually overwhelmed them, and they let a winnable game slip away.
Building for the Future
As much of a program-altering win as this could have been for Virginia Tech, they took the ninth-ranked team in America, with two future lottery picks, to the final minute of the 40. They played one of their worst offensive games in the Mike Young era, were outmatched athletically, and still gave the Tigers everything that they could handle.
VT is unlikely to face a team as naturally gifted as Memphis again prior to the NCAA tournament, and they will not face one as skilled as them not named the Duke Blue Devils. Assuming that Murphy and Aluma can regain their focus and confidence, they are on track to be a top-two team in the conference.
At this time last season, the Hokies lost by 20 to an unranked Penn State squad that finished the year 11-14. This year, they are going toe-to-toe with a March Madness contender without really exploring the possibilities on their bench— consider that a net positive.
The Hokies will be back in action when they take on #25 Xavier Friday at 7:00 p.m. ET.