In two days inside TD Arena in Charleston, S.C., Virginia Tech has been tested. On Thursday afternoon, it was against a very physical Old Dominion club. In Friday’s matinee, the Hokies held strong in their 61-59 win over Penn State, advancing to the Charleston Classic championship game on Sunday.
“We’re five games in and we needed a tooth sharpener, and Penn State was that team,” Tech head coach Mike Young said after the win. “They’re good, they’ve got a good club.”
Defense anchored the Hokies in game two in the Holy City. In their first four games, they were slightly above average on that end of the floor. Penn State presented the biggest challenge yet, and Virginia Tech met it head on.
On Thursday, Jalen Pickett and Seth Lundy led the Nittany Lions in scoring with 20 points each in their win over Furman. Behind an attack spearheaded by Hunter Cattoor, Tech held that duo to 5-of-15 shooting and 13 points.
Young said he genuinely lost sleep on Thursday night thinking of ways the Hokies would defend Penn State’s two main playmakers. Pickett’s excellent at posting up his man and backing him down, so Tech sat Justyn Mutts halfway between his matchup (Myles Dread) and the rim so he had the ability to help. Young & Co. picked their poison – Andrew Funk led the way for Penn State with 21 points (5-of-11 from deep) – and the group effort paid off.
“I thought our team just did a remarkable job [defensively],” Young said. And that’s why we won. We defended at a really, really high level against a very, very good offensive basketball team.”
Tech got off to a hot start in the first 10 minutes and built a 22-6 lead. Much of that was due to good shooting – to that point, VT was 10-of-21 (47.6%). The Hokies were excellent defensively, too. Over that same stretch, they forced the Nittany Lions to start 3-of-15 from the floor and turn the ball over three times. Moreover, Grant Basile and Mylyjael Poteat each had a huge block,
“I think that’s been a big point of emphasis, just not starting slow,” Basile said. “Coach has been great about that, just getting us going early. It’s tough to play from behind.”
But just like Old Dominion the day prior, Penn State cut into the margin. Micah Shrewsbery’s squad outscored Tech 23-15 to end the half and made 8-of-13 shots. Into the half, VT led 37-29.
Also like the ODU game, the Hokies led the whole way, even when their opponent applied pressure. But they had to overcome the three-ball not falling on Friday, something they didn’t experience against the Monarchs.
Virginia Tech was just 3-of-19 from long range vs. Penn State. In the second half, it only attempted four (and didn’t make one). Sean Pedulla was 0-of-6 and Cattoor was just 1-of-5. Instead, Tech attacked the paint, scoring 40 of its 61 points down low.
Though it was stressful down the stretch, it’s a positive that the Hokies beat a quality team when they didn’t have their best night from beyond the arc. Friday marked the fewest treys for the program in a win in the Mike Young era.
“I think it’s a great sign,” Young said. “We got some guys can really knock the bottom out of it. We didn’t today. Penn State really guarded us. I think you pick your poison, if you will. [You’re going to] switch things and run us off the arc? Okay, well, I’m going to throw the ball to [Mutts] and I’m going to throw the ball to Basile and I can throw the ball to Poteat and Lynn Kidd and expect something good to happen.
“Three-for-19 from three won the game against a team that can really shoot the ball. … To have those numbers and win I think is a really, really good sign for the Hokies moving forward.”
As shots didn’t fall, the margin shrank. Tech hit just three of its first 10 shots in the second half. But once Penn State pulled within six with eight minutes to play, the ball started to move. Darius Maddox hit a jump shot, Basile made a layup, Pedulla scored from an out-of-bounds play out of a timeout.
The Nittany Lions continued to answer, and there was a three-minute stretch where they traded baskets with the Hokies. But when it got down to crunch time, defense was the answer.
Pickett stepped out of bounds while being guarded by Cattoor at the 4:42-mark. Penn State’s Evan Mahaffey turned it over with just over two minutes to play. And with 4.7 seconds remaining, Penn State called timeout and inbounded from the scorers table. Tech led by two, 61-59.
Camren Wynter drove down the lane but Cattoor, guarding Pickett on the wing, stuck a hand in and forced Wynter to lose control. The ball flew out of his hands and out of bounds with 1.3 remaining, giving the ball back to the Hokies.
Penn State’s last possession… pic.twitter.com/2CmaIY5Nyb
— David Cunningham (@therealdcunna) November 18, 2022
Mutts lofted the ball down the court to Cattoor, who tipped it up in the air enough times to kill the clock. Virginia Tech 61, Penn State 59.
“I think we’ve got a really good culture,” Mutts said. “We’ve got good guys on the team that when things start going south, I can look to my left and my right and see guys that I trust, guys I believe in. If it’s a big shot, I’ve got guys that I trust with those big shots.”
For the third time in four seasons under Young, the Hokies are off to a 5-0 start. Yet, for just the first time since the infamous 47-24 win over NC State in 2018, they won when scoring less than 62 points. Tech was previously 0-18 in those instances in the Mike Young era.
Now, the attention turns to the Charleston Classic championship game. Virginia Tech will meet the winner of Colorado State and College of Charleston, the tournament hosts, on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN2.
[Note: As of 7 p.m. on Saturday, the Hokies will play College of Charleston (4-1) on Sunday afternoon. The Cougars beat the Rams by 10, 74-64, in the other semifinal.]
Box Score: Link
Charleston Classic Bracket: Link