KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Behind steady defense, Virginia Tech won its second game of the weekend at Walt Disney World, outdueling Iowa State 71-62.
“We defended very well,” Tech head coach Mike Young said after the victory. “… We were really good. We were really connected, really physical. And that’s a pleasure to see this time of year.”
Unlike their Thursday night outing, the Hokies (5-1) started fast against the Cyclones (5-1). Hunter Cattoor knocked down a 3-pointer on the opening possession and they were off, and they controlled the game, leading for 29 minutes.
Ranked 126th in adjusted defensive efficiency entering the Orlando tournament, according to Ken Pomeroy, Tech guarded well for the second straight game, good enough to jump up to 101st. The intensity was there from the jump and was on display early when MJ Collins poked the ball away, dove on the loose ball for a steal and called a timeout. Against Boise State on Thanksgiving, it took some time to find a rhythm, but not on Friday.
“I think it was just important that we didn’t get punched in the mouth first like we did in the first game,” Tech guard Sean Pedulla said. “And not wanting to feel like you’re kind of fighting back the whole game, but to where you’re actually throwing the first punch and you’re the one being the aggressor. [Coach] was reiterating that to us all day, just being the aggressor and the one that is throwing the first punch, and it just kind of makes them play on their heels and kind of makes yourself dictate the game.”
Iowa State plays a frantic style of defense that traps in certain spots and squeezes the middle, forcing baseline drives. The key to unlocking it is with a skip pass, which the Hokies did on a number of occasions in the first half. They were 13-of-28 (46%) from the floor in the opening period against a top-10 Cyclone defense.
More impressive, though, was them holding ISU to 11-of-27 (40%). It was an extremely physical game, one that featured 37 fouls and saw Hunter Cattoor foul out. At times last season, Tech wasn’t great in those moments, like two losses to a Clemson team that dominated that aspect.
It was different on Friday in State Farm Field House at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. Virginia Tech matched that intensity with Iowa State. It absorbed it and used it as fuel on the defensive end, where it thrived, even when shots didn’t fall.
Tech made just seven second-half field goals on 21 attempts, which raised eyebrows. However, it got to the free throw line, knocking down 14-of-16 foul shots, and kept ISU at bay defensively. Focus was required, and Tech had it.
“You’ve just got to keep your head straight, man,” Hokies center Lynn Kidd said. “Even though the shots aren’t falling, you just have to stay locked in on defense and get the stops that we need and we’ll figure it out on the offensive end, the shots will start to fall eventually.
“… I think discipline, we work on this on a daily basis. Practice games, things like that. We have experienced guys out there and I think we just knew what we needed to do and just got it done.”
For the second night in a row, it was a group effort. Cattoor had a team-high 18 points (3-of-7 3FG, 7-of-8 FTs) while Pedulla scored 17 (5-of-7 3FG). For the sixth time this season, Kidd was a double-digit scorer with 13. Tyler Nickel chipped in 10. MJ Collins, Robbie Beran and Mekhi Long each added four.
The Hokies finished with 15 turnovers, not uncommon against a frantic Cyclones defense, and finished 41 percent from the floor for the game (20-of-49) with 11 3-pointers.
It looked rough at times in the second half when they went stretches without scoring — they had separate droughts where they missed five and six consecutive shots, respectively — and it felt as though Iowa State would jump on them, just like it did against VCU on Thursday.
But that’s where they buckled up defensively. Even though Tech went through a rollercoaster of a half offensively, it showed up in crunch time on defense. Over the final six minutes, ISU was 3-of-10 from the field, including 1-of-6 from long range.
“The good thing about basketball is that’s only just part of the game,” Cattoor said of the offensive struggles. “Not every game you’re going to make every shot, so what are you doing to affect the game in other areas? If we’re collected as a group and stick together on the defensive end, we’re going to win a lot of games. We have talented players, they’re going to score the ball on the offensive end at the end of the day. So as long as we stay connected on the defensive end, we’re getting stops and rebounding, we’re going to be in a lot of games no matter what.”
Before Virginia Tech departed chilly Blacksburg for the Sunshine State, Cattoor made a similar comment: “If we just hone down on the defensive side, I think we’ll be OK.”
He’s been right so far. The Hokies were impressive and flew around and got stops against the Cyclones, whether it was a block by Mylyjael Poteat or a combination of Kidd, Beran and Long standing up an opponent under the basket. Tech came prepared to play a scrappy game and it won it, which could have NCAA Tournament résumé implications at the end of the day.
The rebounding was great, too. Tech’s not known for being a great team on the glass while the Cyclones often are, and Young & Co. won that battle 35-30. At halftime, it was a 19-15 margin. Those contributions came from all areas.
Long had a team-high eight while Collins grabbed five. Kidd and Pedulla each had four; Cattoor and Nickel had three apiece; Poteat and Beran had two each. For those keeping track at home, that was 15 of the 35 boards (43%) from backcourt players — Collins, Pedulla, Cattoor and Nickel.
“They’ve got some big dudes and they all crash,” Pedulla said of Iowa State’s rebounding. “I think [Tamin] Lipsey, the point guard, crashed in the first half. Most point guards don’t crash, so it’s like, they really want to get after the boards. The coaches were just telling us, ‘As soon as the shot goes up, you have to find a box, find a body.’ … I think it was just a testament to how we were all boxing out and getting after the rebounds.”
On its own, it was another resilient performance from Virginia Tech, a good sign of a team learning and growing. For it to come against an NCAA Tournament-caliber team in the Cyclones who play with such high intensity on both ends? An even bigger accomplishment.
The Hokies close out their trip with an appearance in the ESPN Events Invitational championship game at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday vs. No. 19 Florida Atlantic. The Owls, ranked 38th in KenPom, are 4-1 on the season after a Final Four trip in March.
“Our brand of basketball … has gotten us this far,” Cattoor said. “But we’ve got to take it up another level. We’re playing against a good team, FAU, and it’s for a championship, its for something special, so we’ve really got to be locked in, hone in on the things we do well and be locked into the gameplan and scouting report. It’s going to be a dogfight.”
Box Score: Virginia Tech 71, Iowa State 62