No. 16 Virginia Tech (14-5, 8-4) couldn’t shake off the rust from its 17-day break against Georgia Tech (12-8, 8-6) on Tuesday night as the Yellow Jackets pulled away to win 69-53.
“We’re not going to blame anything. We came through a tough stretch, but Georgia Tech had the same stretch,” Head Coach Mike Young said. “We’ve all lived it. The bottom line is that we got beat by the better team tonight. I thought for the first time in recent memory, we lost our edge a little bit; we got hit in the stomach and we stepped away from it.”
53 points is the lowest scoring output for the Hokies all season with the offense unable to find any consistency throughout the game. Virginia Tech turned the ball over 11 times in the first half and shot just over 40% from the floor on the night.
“11 turnovers in the first half was sickening,” Young said. “The game is so fine, and everything is amped up here in league play. They disrupted us and had us back on our heels, so lots of credit goes to Coach Pastner and those guys.”
Virginia Tech has struggled against teams that run primarily zone defenses. Some of the Hokies’ worst offensive performances have come against VMI, Penn State, Syracuse and, now, Georgia Tech, who have all attacked them with zones. The 1-3-1 from the Yellow Jackets confused the Hokies into lots of mistakes.
“We have to do a better job of getting the ball through Aluma. We moved the ball better against Syracuse than we did tonight,” Young said. “I’ll go back and look at it, so if we have the opportunity to play them again, we’ll handle it better.”
Despite these issues, the Hokies and Yellow Jackets were tied up at 24 heading to the halftime locker rooms thanks to a great first twenty minutes from Virginia Tech’s defense. However, that didn’t carry over into the second half. Georgia Tech knocked down 61.5% of its shots in the second half on its way to a 45-point scoring outburst.
“This Hokies team has been really good on the ball defensively,” Young said. “They drove it at us, and it was really bizarre. That’s just not our team.”
Two minutes after halftime, the Hokies were down by just one following a Nahiem Alleyne three-pointer. Over the next four minutes, Georgia Tech scored 12 straight points and never looked back on its way to the victory. The Hokies seemed to lose their legs in the second half, presumably due to the time away from competition, and the Jackets took advantage.
The Hokies’ defense struggled mightily against big man Moses Wright in the second half. The senior forward dominated in the paint with 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting. He also grabbed ten boards on his way to his second consecutive double-double.
“There were times where he scored on me one-on-one, but also some offensive rebounds when I was out trying to trap or something,” junior Keve Aluma said. “He definitely scored on me more than I would have liked.”
Aluma once again had a solid statistical game for the Hokies, also adding a double-double in the box score. Aluma had 11 first-half rebounds and turned on the scoring in the second half to tie Alleyne for the team lead with 12 points.
“I don’t think I need anything more from Keve Aluma than he has given me to date,” Young said. “He is a presence on both ends of the floor and just gobbles up so many potential mistakes with his length and tenacity. That thing goes through him often. He didn’t have his best game for him, but 12 points and 14 rebounds is pretty impressive.”
If anything good came out of Tuesday’s loss, it was the return of starting guard Tyrece Radford to the lineup. Radford missed four games due to suspension following his arrest in January. Although it took him some time to look like the old Boots that Hokies fans know, he finished the game with 11 points and seemed to improve as the game went on.
“We followed the process of the department and he was a champion throughout and did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Young said. “I’m proud of him and how he’s handled himself over the last few weeks. It’s good to have him back on the floor. He makes us a better basketball team, needless to say.”
Radford’s return is huge for the Hokies’ postseason hopes. Before his suspension, the redshirt-sophomore was playing like Virginia Tech’s best all-around player. This loss isn’t ideal for the Hokies, but if the team has much higher aspirations in the next month, Radford will be a key piece as they look to achieve them.
“He’s an amazing player, there’s nothing on the court he can’t do,” forward Justyn Mutts said. “Having him back out there is awesome. He’s my roommate and friend, so going out there and being able to play a game with someone that you’re really close with was fun. Not having him was unfortunate, but it’s really great to have him back.”
A notable Hokie was missing from the lineup on Tuesday and that was sophomore guard Jalen Cone. After suffering an ankle injury against Miami, there was optimism that Cone wouldn’t miss much time. However, he didn’t suit up against Georgia Tech, and it could be a while before the sharpshooter returns to the rotation.
“I’m not sure [about Cone’s timetable] yet,” Young said. “I think it’s too early to give you a definitive answer, but it’s going to be a bit more down the road than I had anticipated.”
Despite losing, the Hokies still hold onto third place in the conference with three games remaining. Tech will have three days to regroup before a rematch with Wake Forest in Cassell Coliseum on Saturday afternoon. In mid-January, the Hokies escaped from Winston-Salem with a 64-60 win. They’ll look to get back on track with another victory over the Demon Deacons.
“You guys know how I feel about my team, and I can’t wait to get back over here on Thursday,” Young said. “We’ll give them the day off tomorrow because I think we need that, but we’ll get back over here and start our preparation for Wake Forest. We’ll play better on Saturday; I can guarantee you that.”