CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Maybe it was the late tip (9:37 p.m. ET) or the slippery floor that made Virginia Tech seem slightly off on Friday night, but the Hokies didn’t have it in their 79-77 loss to South Carolina.
“[It’s] Nov. 10, we’ve got a long way to go,” Tech head coach Mike Young said after the loss. “I knew it, I thought we’d play better, I thought we’d find a way to win today. We didn’t. Lamont [Paris]’s team played better than our team. We’ll get appreciably better as we move along.”
Offensive struggles plagued Tech (1-1) in the first half, yet it had a chance at the end when it mattered. Sean Pedulla’s game-high 26 points, 22 of which came in the second half, carried the Hokies, though the Gamecocks (2-0) got the crucial stop to seal the game.
Tech, who played from behind for 30 of the 40 minutes, snatched back the lead with 3:32 remaining after Pedulla hit three free throws. The two sides traded some points before a Mylyjael Poteat layup tied the score at 77 with 43 seconds left.
Then it became crunch time and the Gamecocks buckled down. B.J. Mack, who had 19 points (9-of-16) and six rebounds for USC, got a layup to fall with 20 seconds to go. That gave the Hokies one final possession, and Young drew up a play with two options, one for both Pedulla or Hunter Cattoor.
But South Carolina blew it up behind the 3-point arc. Minnesota transfer Ta’Lon Cooper (12 points, 5-of-8, seven assists, no turnovers) guarded Pedulla so closely that he didn’t get a shot off, arguably the play of the game, preventing Tech from completing the comeback.
“I thought our intensity was extremely high, and so was our discipline, which is a hard combination to have,” South Carolina coach Lamont Paris said. “… I wanted these guys to establish themselves with what our bread and butter was in our man-to-man defense and they did that.”
“They were kind of planted in drop coverage against the ball screen so we wanted to involve something with that, but then also had Hunter coming out of the corner, which was also an option,” Pedulla said. “Picked up my dribble, kind of took away both options. Kind of froze up and then turned the ball over.”
In the latter stages of the game, Virginia Tech delivered punch after punch to South Carolina, who seemingly absorbed just about every blow. The Hokies cut the lead to single digits or tied the game nine different times in the second half, up until they took back the lead. On each occasion, the Gamecocks extended the margin.
Even when Tech led with under three minutes remaining, it didn’t hold. USC found ways to score clutch baskets. First, it was Myles Stute’s 3-pointer with 2:23 that gave the team a two-point cushion; later, it was Mack’s aforementioned layup.
The Hokies didn’t have an answer, and it didn’t matter that they shot 68% in the second half (15-of-22) — they couldn’t defend the Gamecocks, who were 56% from the floor for the game (31-of-55). Paris & Co. were also stout from behind the arc, knocking down 10-of-21 attempts (48%). Entering Friday night, Young said Tech’s goal was to hold USC to six or seven.
South Carolina experienced a few rough patches on the offensive end. Early in the first half, it was missing four shots in five attempts, which helped the Hokies jump out to a 15-10 lead. Down the stretch, it had a span of three-plus minutes where it missed six-of-eight shots.
But in a 40-minute game, those few consecutive defensive stops weren’t enough for Tech. It struggled to contain Stute, who had a team-high 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-6 from deep. He was one of four USC starters in double figures, accompanied by Mack (19), Cooper (12) and Meechie Johnson (11). Jacobi Wright also added 12 off the bench.
Specifically, it was the Mack show as the clock winded down. He wasn’t as outstanding as Pedulla in the second half — the junior from Edmond, Okla., was 5-of-6 from the field and 9-of-11 from the free throw line — but he was efficient, shooting 7-of-10. It was a full-circle moment for Mack, who once committed to the Buzz Williams regime at Tech back in 2016 as young high school student, as he gave the Hokies more than they could handle.
“Mack’s presence in there, he’s a load,” Young said. “He’s a great passer so you’re weary of a number of things. I’m just so disappointed we allowed Stute to get… Stute’s a good player, take nothing away from Myles, but you’ve got to make a player like him dribble to his shot, you can’t let him catch it and shoot it.”
Not being able to stop the Gamecocks put a damper on what was a positive second half offensively for the Hokies. They were 5-of-8 from long range and made 11-of-14 foul shots. Moreover, they only had two instances where they missed back-to-back field goals. It was a team effort spearheaded by Pedulla’s 22 points; Cattoor (eight), Lynn Kidd (six), Mekhi Long (six), Tyler Nickel (two) and Poteat (two) helped Tech succeed from multiple areas.
However, when it mattered, the Hokies came up short, in part due to a poor first half. While they were 11-of-30 (37%), including an abysmal — and uncharacteristic — 2-of-14 (14%) from distance, South Carolina was 15-of-26 (58%). Tech only turned it over once, which helped keep the game close at halftime, 38-31.
Still, it missed golden opportunities. Cattoor, who had 13 points, the second-most on the team, had a few looks that just didn’t fall, including one that was wide open from the right wing at the end of the first half. Pedulla also wasn’t great early; he and Cattoor were a combined 3-of-14, 1-of-9 from three with nine points through 20 minutes. Robbie Beran and Poteat led the way with seven points each.
“I’m anxious to go back and look at it,” Young said. “I didn’t think our rhythm was very good, I thought we were pushed up on the floor quite a bit. Our stuff, what we were doing offensively was not sharp enough. That, coupled with poor shot selection, can lead to what you saw.”
The narrative changed some in the second half due to Pedulla’s outstanding scoring, but the early woes came back to bite. And in a close game, it was those missed chances that doomed the Hokies in their defeat at the hands of the Gamecocks, who were picked to finish dead last in the SEC in the preseason.
Box Score: South Carolina 79, Virginia Tech 77