For the third time in the 2022-23 season, Virginia Tech men’s basketball fell on the road. On New Year’s Eve, the responsible party was Wake Forest in a 77-75 contest that was back-and-forth for 40 minutes.
Demon Deacons guard Tyree Appleby led all scorers with 24 points and scored six of his team’s final eight. But despite holding Wake Forest (10-4, 2-1 ACC) to 36.5% shooting, the Hokies (11-3, 1-2 ACC) couldn’t get over the hump without injured guard Hunter Cattoor.
“I thought they [Wake Forest] were just relentless and kept going,” Tech forward Justyn Mutts said after the loss. “At the end of the day, it’s more about Virginia Tech and what we can do better. We didn’t do the best we could’ve done on the boards. We left a lot out there, and at the end of the day, that’s going to come back to hurt you.”
Even though the Demon Deacons tried to pull away multiple times, the Hokies continuously found a way to answer. After a 3-pointer from Appleby pushed the lead to 11 with 13:35 to play, Tech responded with a 14-5 run and cut the margin to two.
A few minutes later, Appleby nailed a three from the top of the key as the shot clock expired. Though WF led by eight, a quick 6-0 stretch from Tech made it a two-point game. Sean Pedulla and Mutts, who each contributed 18 points, played key roles in keeping the Hokies in the game.
“We were on ice a little bit,” Tech head coach Mike Young said. “We had a couple of bad offensive possessions. … But we stiffened up and made some timely plays. I thought we defended quite well. But those intangibles, those little plays to get you out of tight spots, they made a few more of them than we did.”
Mutts posted 18 and 11, his fifth double-double this season, while Pedulla had seven assists and three steals. However, they couldn’t seal the deal. Wake Forest established itself as the more physical team and grabbed 14 offensive boards. And it didn’t matter that WF missed seven of its final eight shots; it got the offensive rebound four times in that span, which was the difference in the end.
“They’re really good, but they’re not a great rebounding team,” Young said. “When I play three bigs out of necessity and we give up 14 offensive rebounds, that’ll get your tail whipped.”
Trailing by five, Grant Basile knocked down a triple with 60 seconds remaining, giving the team an opportunity. But two offensive rebounds from Andrew Carr and two free throws from Damari Monsanto created a four-point game in the final seconds. It didn’t matter that Darius Maddox’s jumper at the horn fell through the net – Tech suffered back-to-back losses for the first time since January 2022 (North Carolina, Miami).
The Hokies were short a man in their usual rotation due to Cattoor’s absence, forcing Young to switch things up. Lynn Kidd started alongside Mutts and Basile while MJ Collins, John Camden and Mylyjael Poteat combined for 61 minutes off the bench. Unlike the last game at Boston College, Tech got a boost from its reserves – 18 points to 1. But foul trouble forced Young to use his depth more than he would’ve liked.
The trio of Roger Ayers, Jamie Luckie and Bill Covington Jr. whistled Tech for 24 fouls, the most this season. Pedulla, Mutts, Basile and Collins finished with four each. The first two, Tech’s most productive players on the afternoon, both had four with 8:28 remaining in the game. In turn, Wake Forest shot 26 free throws, making 20.
“Going into the game, I didn’t think, ‘Oh, man, those guys really get fouled a lot,'” Young said. “‘Oh, man, they’re really physical. Oh, man.’ I didn’t feel that way at all. But that’s sloppy, that’s lazy and something we need to correct. We were one of the league leaders in not fouling, keeping people off the line. That’s a big part of it.”
Turnovers hurt, too. Over a two-minute stretch early in the second half, Tech gave the ball away on four straight possessions – two from Mutts, two from Pedulla. For the fourth consecutive game, VT had double-digit turnovers, finishing with 13.
Young & Co. entered Saturday at No. 7 in the country in turnover percentage at 14.7%. But in the recent stretch of games against Oklahoma State, Grambling State, Boston College and Wake Forest, they’ve had 51 miscues on 268 possessions (19.0%).
Still, the Hokies had a chance when it mattered, ultimately falling short. They got the stop they hoped to get, but two offensive rebounds from Wake Forest’s Carr (14 points, seven boards) killed all hopes.
“Winning on the road’s really hard, I don’t care what league you’re in” Young said. “Beating Wake Forest on the road, it’s hard. And those are real feathers in the cap, and we’ve lost, we’ve squandered two opportunities, at BC and at Wake Forest.”
Young did not provide an update on the status of freshman guard Rodney Rice after the game. He was a game-time decision but did not participate, and New Year’s Eve was originally his projected return date from his ankle injury.
Yet Young provided some positive news on Cattoor. He expects the veteran, the lone player remaining from his first team in Blacksburg in 2019-20, to return to the floor in the team’s next game on Wednesday, Jan. 4 vs. Clemson. The Orlando, Fla. native suffered an injury to his left arm at Boston College on Dec. 21.
“He’s really close,” Young said. “We had a shot to play him today but he’s very close. I think he’ll play on Wednesday. He’s feeling good. I thought it was just in his best interest and our team’s best interest to hold onto him for a night here. He’s still a little tender, he’s still got some bruising on that elbow. But we caught a break, it could’ve been a lot worse.”
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