Hunter Cattoor’s potential game-winner bounced off of the back iron and Virginia Tech (8-2, 2-1) came up just shy of an epic comeback, falling 73-71 on the road against Louisville (8-1, 3-0) on Wednesday night.
“I think Hunter took a great shot. I think out of everybody on our team, Hunter is definitely one of those guys everybody would choose to take that shot from that exact spot,” sophomore guard Jalen Cone said. “He just missed. I’m sure if you give him that shot five more times, he’ll hit the next four. It was a great shot, but we just came up short.”
The Hokies trailed by as much as 14 in the second half before cutting the deficit to two in the final seconds. Tech outscored the Cardinals by eight in the final five minutes, but couldn’t complete the comeback with Cattoor’s deep three.
“I am proud of our toughness, but we missed some opportunities,” Head Coach Mike Young said. “I’m proud of them for hanging in there and doing everything they could but win the basketball game.”
Cone hit his sixth three-pointer of the game with 3:45 remaining to cut the Cardinals’ lead to five for the first time since halftime. Then, with just over a minute to go, Cattoor finished an and-one to get the game back to a one-score game.
On the Cardinals’ next possession, senior guard Wabissa Bede stripped the ball away from former Radford Highlander Carlik Jones and gave the Hokies a shot to tie it.
However, Jones made a play of his own on the other end of the floor, knocking the ball loose and into the backcourt. Keve Aluma was able to corral the ball for the Hokies, but was fouled with just 6.6 seconds remaining on the clock.
Aluma hit both of his shots at the line and Tech immediately fouled sophomore David Johnson, who along with Jones led the Cardinals in scoring with 17. Johnson made the first, but missed the second at the stripe.
The rebound fell to Aluma, who found Cattoor as the outlet up the left sideline. Cattoor slid towards midcourt and found space, but couldn’t get the jumper to fall and Tech lost to Louisville for the 17th straight time.
“You live and learn. We’ll get back and watch this game to see what we could’ve done better,” forward Justyn Mutts said. “Those shots are going to fall, those shots that we took are our shots. Definitely looking at that last shot of the game, Hunter Cattoor taking that game-winning shot, that’s a shot we want.”
Early on, it looked promising that the Hokies might break the streak of losses to the Cardinals which dates back to 1991. Tech started the game with four straight makes, including three from long range, to go up 11-0 in the first three minutes.
However, the offense lost that rhythm, especially from the outside. Hokies not named Jalen Cone combined to go 0-of-15 from the outside following the initial 11-point outburst.
“I don’t have a problem with our shot selection from three, but we just have to make more,” Young said.
In the next 12 minutes after the 11-0 run, the Hokies combined for just one field goal and six turnovers, which led to only seven points on the board. The Cardinals outscored the Hokies by 16 the rest of the way in the first half and went to the break leading by five.
“We had a bad start [after the run]. Our starts have been pretty good, over the course of the season,” Young said. “We didn’t respond very well and mishandled a couple of things and they popped us in the nose.”
Cone was the only bright spot on the perimeter for Tech as he once again mystified fans with his ability to contort himself and still make shots from deep. He led the Hokies with 23 points, a career-high.
“Guys weren’t helping off of me like they would others, so I knew that I had to get the shot off quick and really elevate,” Cone said. “That’s exactly what I did. Sometimes I can stop on a dime and make shots; I think that really helped because while guys are chasing, I’m stopping on a dime and can make tough shots.”
With no one but the sophomore guard hitting from long-range, the Hokies were forced to go inside, but that didn’t work out in the first half. Tech had just four points in the paint during the first 20 minutes. The performance down low was much improved in the second half with 16 points in the paint, but the Cardinals still outscored the Hokies by ten in the lane.
The poor performance down low was in-part due to the struggles of Hokies’ top-scorer Keve Aluma. Coming off of a career-high 26 points against Miami, Aluma scored just 11 on Wednesday, shooting 3-10 from the floor.
“I didn’t think he had his best stuff. He wasn’t as explosive in the paint,” Young said. “They did a really nice job on him in the paint, but we were getting him the ball in spots where we expect him to score with regularity. He had some difficulty.”
Defensively, it wasn’t much better for the Hokies in the post as Jae’Lyn Withers put up 16 points and a career-high 12 rebounds. Withers entered the game averaging just nine points per game.
“He was a little bit better than we anticipated, and that’s not to take anything away from Jae’Lyn,” Young said. “He looked to be much more comfortable and much more at ease within their offense than I anticipated. Part of that is that we felt like we had to guard Jones and Johnson. I wouldn’t alter how we guarded them.”
Part of the Hokies’ comeback efforts was spurred by sophomore guard Nahiem Alleyne, who added 13 points in the second half. After a subpar effort in the first frame, Alleyne came off of the bench in the second half and made five of his seven shots in the final 20 minutes.
“I got after him a little bit at the half because I didn’t think he had a very good look and I didn’t think he was himself in the first,” Young said. “He was really, really good in the second half.”
This loss ends a four-game winning streak for the Hokies, their second of the year. They’ll look to start another with back-to-back home games, starting with Notre Dame on Sunday in Cassell Coliseum.