Back in October at the ACC Tip-off in Charlotte, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said Virginia Tech was the one team his squad had no answers for in 2020-21.
“How they defended us and physically got after us,” Brey said then of what stood out about this Tech team.
In the ACC Tournament quarterfinal on Thursday night in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Hokies and Irish met for the second time this season. The first matchup was a six-point win in Tech’s favor in Blacksburg on Jan. 15.
This time around, it was more of the same. Brey knew exactly what to expect before the season. Tech proved him right for the second time in 2021-22 in the Barclays Center.
In their 87-80 victory, just their fourth-ever ACC Tournament quarterfinal win in program history, the Hokies were hot. Similar to Wednesday’s 76-75 overtime win over Clemson, they were fantastic out of the gate, essentially the fuse for the stick of dynamite that is this Hokies team.
They made seven of their first eight shots and led by double digits six minutes into the game. Though Notre Dame charged back, cutting the margin to as little as four, it never led.
“We just had such a great look about us,” Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young said afterwards. “We got [Keve] Aluma started in the first possession of the game. Justyn [Mutts] was awfully, awfully good throughout, got a couple of shots down, and I thought we put Notre Dame on their heels a little bit, which is very unusual.”
But as great as that first stretch of play was, the Hokies proved themselves with their late-game stops. To no surprise, they were anchored by their defense.
The team has won 11-of-13 games for a reason, and against an Irish team that shot 60% in the second half, that was the deciding factor.
A prominent moment occurred with 45 seconds remaining in the contest. Desperate and trailing by six, Notre Dame’s Nate Laszewski attacked the basket from the right wing, driving past Hunter Cattoor. He released his floater a few feet from the rack, a shot that looked good when it left his hands.
Then in a split second, Mutts came flying out of nowhere to help, rejecting the ball against the backboard before it even had a chance to graze the glass.
“Mutts is almost a one-man show,” Brey said.
Hunter Cattoor corralled the loose ball, was fouled and sank both free throws. They were the third and fourth made foul shots in a stretch of eight consecutive conversions. But the defensive play – chemistry, particularly – made those opportunities possible.
“I thought we did a great job, stayed connected, all five guys on the floor,” Mutts said of his team’s defense. “And at any given point in time, I was able to go do what I had to do and trust that my teammates were going to be there for me. And I felt that they were also in the same position where they can just play hard and trust that I’m going to be there for them.”
You’ve heard all of the storylines at this point. When a team goes on a run like this, one unprecedented in ACC history, there’s only so much one can say that is unique.
Yet, the Hokies looked like a true NCAA Tournament team on Thursday. There have been many glimpses at different times this season, but the consistency and domination shown in their most important game to date outweighs all.
The starters? 68 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists, seven steals and three blocks (all Mutts). The bench? 19 points, four rebounds, an assist and a steal.
There wasn’t any drop-off. Five players scored in double figures, headlined by Aluma’s 20 points. Mutts had a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds). Murphy added 16 points, Sean Pedulla contributed 13, and Alleyne scored 12. All eight Hokies that played, scored.
“I’ve got really good players,” Young said. “It took us a time to get to this rotation, and maybe I can be faulted for that. But we’re getting really good play from Maddox and Pedulla and David N’Guessan. These two guys [Aluma and Mutts] are just a load in the front court.
“We’ve got a lot on the line, man.”
Young’s team has played like it. Like every game is the Super Bowl.
Thursday was just the sixth time in 33 games this season that the Hokies’ opponent never led. The other five occurrences, courtesy of Damian Salas of Virginia Tech athletics: Maine, Merrimack, St. Bonaventure, at NC State and at Pitt.
With the outlier previously being the Bonnies (No. 85 in NET, 20-8), that group has an average NET rating of 216 and a win-loss record of 12-18. And then there’s Notre Dame: No. 50 in the NET, sitting at 22-10 and clearly NCAA Tournament bound.
Best performance of the season might be a stretch, but one might be able to pitch Young & Co. on it. It undoubtably was the most important at that given point in time.
In a system centered around two bigs whom Brey said pass to each other like he’s never seen before, Tech has found success. The 3-point shot might not always be on, but Tech’s defense will be, and has been as of late.
Those attributes have been the different gears in the manual transmission vehicle Young is piloting. The car has stalled despite the light being green on occasion, but now the shifting has become a more natural transition.
The Hokies aren’t focused on the destination. They’re just cruising with the windows down, taking it in mile-by-mile, stop light-by-stop light.
And their NCAA Tournament résumé? Well, they’ve got a dang good case for the selection committee, especially if Notre Dame remains their second Quadrant 1 win.
“It still blows my mind they were 2-7 in the league,” Brey said, “but the run they’ve been on, I think they’re an NCAA Tournament team. They’re really good.”