Virginia Tech has had some good defensive stretches over the course of the season. But not even three minutes into the second half of Monday’s game vs. Virginia, the Hokies had arguably their best defensive possession of the year.
In five seconds, Tech blocked three shots. That’s not a typo. Five seconds, three blocks, two of which came from Keve Aluma.
Virginia’s Kihei Clark attacked the basket from the right wing with seven seconds on the shot clock, 17:47 on the game clock. He was met by Keve Aluma, who slid over to help Storm Murphy, and his 6-10 frame. Aluma swatted it out of bounds right below the basket with four seconds on the shot clock.
Then, UVa ran an inbounds play to Jayden Gardner. Again, Aluma showed his defensive prowess, flying over to block the shot. Dead ball, two ticks on the shot clock.
Finally, the Cavaliers ran a set for Armaan Franklin. He curled off a screen at the top of the key, caught the ball on the right wing, and released it. But Justyn Mutts got there first.
Another block, one of Tech’s six on the night, and a UVa shot clock violation.
In front of the largest – and loudest – crowd Cassell Coliseum has hosted this season, the Hokies rattled Tony Bennett & Co. in Monday night’s 62-53 win.
UVa (16-10, 10-6 ACC) had more turnovers (ten) than assists (nine) and was 33% in the second half, all while Tech (16-10, 8-7) shot a 55.6% clip after intermission.
“We’re playing the way I envisioned us playing,” Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young said afterwards. “I said when the lights come on, we needed to come on. We were in a tough spot. It was going to be beautiful, and we’re going to play really good basketball and we’re going to have a lot of fun doing it, and that’s where we are.”
It started with shutting down Jayden Gardner, who carried Virginia in the first half.
At halftime, Gardner had 15 points and had scored six of his team’s 12 baskets. After shooting 6-of-11 in the first 20 minutes, he was 1-of-6 after the break, scoring just two points. All thanks to great defense from Justyn Mutts, who Aluma described as “relentless” on that end of the floor.
“I thought as good as Jayden is, I thought Mutts made him uncomfortable,” Young said. “He wants to rip at the baseline, he wants to … out of his left and step-back, and I thought Justyn really covered that up and did a great job on a really, really good player.”
“I thought we did a great job recognizing his strengths and then trying to take those away,” Mutts said of his defense on Gardner. “He’s a lethal mid-range shooter, lethal. If he gets a shot, we all know it’s going in, so really just trying to take that away and do whatever we can to take that away, and also just try to flock to other guys. They started killing us with the pick & roll late in the second half, but I thought our coaches did a real good job making that adjustment.”
On offense, the Hokies started to make some shots. They got good looks that just didn’t fall in the first half, but that wasn’t the case in the second.
Time and time again, Virginia Tech found a way to score, and no shot was bigger than Aluma’s Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaway with 1:19 remaining that iced the game.
“That’s just great players and good passing,” Young said of his team shooting 56% in the second half. “Mutts’s interior passing is a thing of beauty, and probably the shot of the game was, we got a little tentative and Aluma hits a turnaround jump shot opposite our bench at the bottom of the clock.
“I didn’t want to give them a bunch of stuff. I wanted them to play, and we did a lot of that in the first half and I thought we had good opportunities.”
Aluma led the Hokies in scoring with a game-high 24 points, and he only missed four shots (10-of-14). He also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds. But Aluma often was the product of something special from Mutts.
The Millville, N.J. native, who recorded a triple-double on Saturday vs. Syracuse, has a unique perspective of the game. He’s a staple for the Hokies defensively, and he finished with eight points, six rebounds and five assists. Mutts is an all-around player that is crucial to Virginia Tech’s success in every aspect of the game, and he’s shown it lately.
On Saturday, he recorded the school’s second-ever triple-double. In his last two games, Mutts has 20 points, 20 rebounds, 16 assists, one turnover, two blocks, two steals and one personal foul. For comparison, he had just two points, four rebounds, two assists and four personal fouls in January’s meeting with Virginia.
“He’s a unique player,” Young said of Mutts. “His vision, his gamesmanship, his lookaways, and there goes that dart down there to Aluma. Aluma does a great job, he’s got great hands.
“He’s a special player, and a lot of fun to coach. … See it all the time. Very unique for a 6-7, 6-8 man with that kind of skill set, and he is such a threat going at the rim and he’s so athletic around the hole. He’s a good one. Lucky to have him.”
All eight players who touched the floor for Tech scored, though Alleyne (11 points) was the only other to join Aluma in double figures. And despite the team making just five 3-pointers, tied with Dec. 22’s game at Duke for fewest number of treys in an ACC game this season, the Hokies controlled the game.
They shut down Virginia’s Kihei Clark (two points, two assists, two turnovers, four fouls). They didn’t allow their opponent to hit a three for the first time since Clemson on March 1, 2012. And they got to the free throw line 21 times, a major difference from just three instances in the previous meeting in John Paul Jones Arena.
The victory is the sixth in a row for the Hokies, who are above .500 again in the league. It’s an amazing feat, one that likely has never been done before. And it’s a run that’s been anchored on desperation, toughness and edginess.
That’s something Virginia Tech can’t, and won’t, lose sight of moving forward. Especially not when it results in wins like Monday’s.
“Fighting. Being desperate. Back to the wall,” Mutts said of Tech’s mindset as of late. “Wanting more, and knowing who we are, what we’re capable of, and knowing that we weren’t doing that. We dropped way too many games that we should’ve won throughout the season.
“Every game is a Super Bowl. That’s what coach Young has been telling us, and that’s how we’ve been taking it.”
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