How does one describe what happened in the Barclays Center on Saturday, March 12, 2022? Virginia Tech did what many thought was impossible, winning the ACC Tournament Championship, and the result came in style.
Many stories write themselves. The Hokies’ novel is, and will be, a page-turner.
Back against the wall, 2-7 in the ACC, nothing to play for but each other. That’s all Virginia Tech had. But Mike Young made sure his team stayed the course.
He said time and time again that the season would turn around, and when it did, it would be beautiful. But never in a million years would he think it would culminate in an ACC Championship for Virginia Tech.
Winning 13 games in 15 tries? Extremely difficult, but doable. Four wins in four days over Clemson, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Duke? Okay, now you might be pushing the limit. How about Tech outscoring its final three opponents by 35, the two blue bloods by 28?
How would one frame that journey from nothing to everything?
“Gratifying.” That’s what Young called it.
And rightfully so. The way in which Virginia Tech rolled – not casually won, but overpowered and dominated – to the ACC Tournament Championship is unbelievable.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. This team was picked fifth in the ACC Preseason Poll for a reason. The veteran leadership – starting three fifth-year seniors, two juniors – along with the chemistry and hungriness made this team jump off the page.
Things just didn’t click right away, something Young has taken blame for. A poor ACC start put the Hokies in a hole, and they had to climb out of it. But it led to one of the greatest moments in Virginia Tech basketball history. Maybe it was all worth it in the end.
As for the game against Duke in Brooklyn, Tech was the better team.
Hunter Cattoor dropped a career-high 31 points and was named the ACC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player. He said it was like playing in his front yard.
Keve Aluma, a First Team All-Tournament Selection, posted a casual 19 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven assists. He out-assisted his own point guard, Second Team All-Tournament performer Storm Murphy, who had nine points and six dimes.
And Justyn Mutts? His moment of the game, posterizing Duke’s Paolo Banchero, came with 2:27 remaining in the contest. That moment will stick in the minds of Tech fans until the end of time.
“We played good basketball,” Young said. “We were not clicking defensively. My point at the half was if you think we can outscore them, you’re sadly mistaken. We were much better … much better second half. Got our feet on the ground defensively but continued to play good basketball on the offensive end of the floor.”
The Hokies shot 50% from the floor (32-64) and 45% from distance (10-22), and every time Duke punched once, they punched back twice. The Blue Devils’ largest run of the game was six points, and that came in the first seven minutes of the game.
Tech, on the other hand, had two 8-0 stretches in each half and one 6-0 spurt around the 16-minute mark in the second period.
Cattoor, 7-of-9 from behind the arc, couldn’t miss. Mike Krzyzewski described it as “a Klay Thompson kind of night.” He and Aluma combined for 28 of Tech’s 42 first half points.
But the defense in the second half, particularly holding the Blue Devils to 2-of-12 from three and 39% from the field, really made a difference. Duke could never get going, and from the 12:33-mark on in the second half, made just 4-of-15 shots.
“I thought our offense was good,” Krzyzewski said afterwards. “We just didn’t hit shots. We couldn’t stop them. When you don’t hit shots, you don’t look like you’re running good offense. We got – even down 10, we got two threes that are in and out and missed four free throws. I had not a problem with our offense, but we couldn’t stop them, and that was the game.”
Virginia Tech looked, as Krzyzewski mentioned, like a well-oiled machine.
Thirty-seven rebounds to Duke’s 26. Nine turnovers to Duke’s 10 – the first team this season to beat the Blue Devils with more than five turnovers. Eighteen assists to Duke’s nine.
The Hokies deserved that ACC Tournament crown, and they got it, the program’s biggest win since joining the conference in 2004.
In 2,773 games in program history, Virginia Tech has played in eight “banner games,” otherwise known as postseason tournament finals.
Saturday was the eighth, the first since the 1995 NIT Final. And in three contests in the state of New York, Tech is a perfect 3-0.
But how about the journey for Young, Aluma, Murphy and Cattoor? Three years ago, Wofford Terriers, SoCon Champions. Now they ran through the ACC. Aluma said, “it means everything,” and that seemed to summarize the other two’s perspective.
And for Young, a Radford, Va. native who grew up watching Tech and Allan Bristow play in Cassell Coliseum with his father?
“I mean, it’s really a special thing for our basketball team,” Young said. “This is a special thing for Blacksburg; for southwest Virginia where I’m from, where I grew up; for the state of Virginia; for our unbelievable Hokie fan base.
“They’ll always remember this, this team, and what they’ve accomplished.”
And now the Hokies, in cardiac Kemba Walker fashion like 2011 UConn, are going dancing. It’s gratifying.
“We knew going into this tournament we were going to have to win a couple,” Cattoor said. “Once we won our first one, we were just saying, ‘why not the whole thing? We won’t have to worry about waiting on Selection Sunday to see if our name is called. Now knowing that our name is definitely going to be called, it’s a little bit more relaxing.”