In a contest that was neck-and-neck for almost 40 minutes, Virginia Tech couldn’t pull off the upset at No. 10 Virginia, losing its sixth consecutive game, 78-68.
Senior guard Hunter Cattoor was the glue that held Tech together in his first game back from an elbow injury, finishing with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists. But despite the Hokies’ best efforts, UVa was too much to handle in John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday night.
“I thought my team fought, and they’re very good,” Tech head coach Mike Young said after the loss. “Proud of our numbers. 19 assists in here, only eight turnovers. Those are Virginia Tech numbers. … I tell you what, if there are 10 teams out there better than them nationally, I’d like to see them.”
With 9:20 remaining, Virginia (14-3, 6-2 ACC) led Virginia Tech (11-7, 1-6 ACC) by four, 59-55. To that point, the two teams matched each other stride for stride. But after Kihei Clark (20 points, five assists) drained a 3-pointer in front of UVa’s bench out of the eight-minute media timeout, the Hokies turned it over at midcourt. Jayden Gardner scored a layup in transition, got fouled and made his free throw.
From there, UVa was in control. Tech was 5-of-14 from the field the rest of the way and was outscored 19-12.
The Hokies pulled within eight points on three separate occasions; the Cavaliers responded with each time – a trey from Isaac McKneely, one from Clark and a jumper from Ben Vander Plas.
“You rarely hear me say this, but we had to score,” UVa head coach Tony Bennett said. “We had a hard time stopping them. And we ran good offense and the guards made timely, big baskets, but they put a lot of pressure on you. I just thought there were some key plays.”
Offense ruled the night for both teams. As good as Virginia Tech and Virginia are defensively, both teams shot well. VT made 49% of its attempts to UVa’s 51%. The Hokies also shot above 40% from behind the arc – 12-of-27 (44.4%) – for the first time since Grambling State in mid-December, before the losing streak began.
In comparison to their most recent displays, they looked like a different team offensively. The ball moved better – Tech had 19 assists to eight turnovers – and fewer shots were forced. All five starters finished in double figures, led by Darius Maddox’s 13. Justyn Mutts added 10 points, seven dimes and six boards, Grant Basile had 12 points and Sean Pedulla scored 10.
Having Cattoor back was a big boost. Young referred to him as “the tide,” stating that he “raises all of our ships,” and it was evident in JPJ. Virginia had to gravitate to him more, opening up opportunities for others.
“Obviously, Hunter’s a great shooter,” Maddox said. “The defense really has to key into him shooting, so they have to kind of not help as much, along with the ball movement. … I feel like offensively, we played well.”
Freshman guard MJ Collins also gave Tech a spark off the bench. In his 19 minutes, he grabbed four rebounds and made three of his five shots, including two-of-three from deep, good for eight points.
Tech announced that fellow freshman Rodney Rice broke his finger during practice on Jan. 14 after returning from an ankle injury. As a result, Collins saw more action. He played well, tying his career-high in points from December’s win vs. North Carolina.
“[He] did [play well],” Young said of Collins. “Now MJ Collins, do something with it. Play good ball on Saturday. He’s doing it night-in, night-out defensively, but to get those two shots down – I thought he made a big basket … around the lane. Great look about him, he played a good ballgame.”
At the end of the day, though, UVa was just too good to hold off. Tony Bennett’s club went through some rough patches due to good defense from Tech. The Cavaliers were held scoreless for 5:07 in the first half, during which the Hokies ripped off an 11-0 run. Yet, Virginia countered with a 21-10 span to take a 40-31 lead into intermission.
Like Tech, all five of UVa’s starters posted double-digit points. Franklin had 15 (and five rebounds), Jayden Gardner had 12, Reece Beekman added 11 (and seven assists) and Vander Plas scored 10 (with seven boards).
Similar to last year’s 2-7 start to conference play, the Hokies sit at 1-6 halfway through January. Young’s message to his team: stay the course.
The offense was an improvement from the past few games. Adjustments are to be expected on the defensive end, but UVa’s top-20 offense in the country was on display on Wednesday night. Overall, though, the connectivity and ball movement were better; Tech looked like its old self in many areas.
Young hopes the Hokies play in a similar manner on Saturday in their second meeting of the year with Clemson (15-4, 7-1 ACC). In the first clash on Jan. 4, Tech was 27.9% on two-point shots, the lowest mark since 2012.
In the three games since, the team hasn’t shot below 53%. And the three-point game came alive in Charlottesville despite the loss.
Though the defeat stings – UVa improved to 5-1 in the Commonwealth Clash with the victory –the performance was scattered with positives, something the Hokies couldn’t say on Jan. 11 at Syracuse.
“That effort, that level of basketball,” Young said of what it’ll take to snap the losing streak. “We’re going to be fine. We’re going to figure it out.”
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