With just under four minutes left in the first half, MJ Collins got his 3-pointer to fall. At that point, the Hokies trailed Louisville by four, but it was a sign of positive things to come.
Though the sophomore from Clover, S.C., missed his first 11 attempts from distance through seven games this season, getting one down was just the spark he needed. That was his first of five made field goals on Sunday, his first of three from behind the arc, and his career-high 20 points led Virginia Tech in its 75-68 win over Louisville in the ACC opener.
“He hung in there,” Tech head coach Mike Young said of Collins after the win. “He was 0-for-November from three and it had affected a couple other parts of his game. Suffered a little injury, missed obviously the Auburn game, but we had him back on the floor Friday, Saturday and he looked good, said he felt like he could go. Thank goodness he did, he played a good ballgame.”
Collins suffered a knee injury a week prior in Orlando against Florida Atlantic after he planted while going up for a dunk and slipped, which he said was like a hyperextension. He did not dress out on Wednesday for the Hokies (6-3, 1-0 ACC) in their loss at Auburn, but he made his return against the Cardinals (4-4, 0-1), and his minutes were crucial in a close game. And he didn’t just make a shot or two; he drilled a number of them, finishing 5-of-10 from the field, 3-of-3 from deep. He was a perfect 7-of-7 from the foul line too.
On an afternoon where Tech point guard Sean Pedulla was quiet, making just two field goals on his way to eight points, the team needed some backcourt production to complement Hunter Cattoor’s 12 points. Collins stepped up and filled that role, a good sign after he struggled in November. He averaged 3.4 points and was 8-of-43 (19%) in his seven appearances last month.
The difference? He got one down, which gave him a jolt of confidence. He also spent time with his dad, Michael, during the week leading up to the game, who gave him some useful tips and helped him tweak some things. Collins described it as “going back to where it all started,” and it paid off on Sunday.
“The last couple weeks, it was challenging,” Collins said. “I’m talking to my coaches and my dad and my teammates telling them all I need to do is see the ball go in the basket. The month of November, I was in a bad slump, but they just kept telling me, ‘Shoot the next one, shoot the next one. It’ll go in.’ Every time I shot, it looked like it was going in. And then my dad came down here and we got in the gym together.
“… It was hitting tonight.”
Indeed. Collins was pivotal in the Hokies’ bounce-back win against the Cardinals, their fifth win to open league play in the last six seasons. Tech shot 44 percent overall but a worrying 25 percent (5-of-20) from three. Much of that production came in the second half, however, when it was 12-of-25 (48%).
Lynn Kidd had his eighth double-figure performance of the season in nine outings, hitting eight of his 13 shots and adding three free throws for 19 points. Cattoor was the only other player that hit double digits.
Mylyjael Poteat contributed seven points, though, while Pedulla had eight. Mekhi Long added four, along with his eight boards, and Tyler Nickel and Robbie Beran had three and two, respectively.
It wasn’t a flashy display; almost a third of the Hokies’ points — 22 of the 75 — came from the free throw line, including 19 of the 45 second-half points. Where they won the game was on the other end.
Five Louisville players finished in double figures, led by Skyy Clark’s 16. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield had 14 and Ty-Laur Johnson, Mike James and Tre White had 10 apiece. Huntley Hatfield and James had nine rebounds each, too. But Tech forced 14 turnovers and got stops in certain spots.
The Hokies had a 16-2 run between the under-4 timeout in the first half and the under-16 in the second half, during which the Cardinals missed seven of their eight shots. Louisville had three other sequences where it missed three consecutive field goals too.
“I thought we defended well,” Young said. “I thought we got shots contested after the first five minutes. My gosh, what a horrific start defensively. Slow to the ball, closing out with our hands down. We never do that and we’re not supposed to do that, but after that point, really good. Very good.”
The win comes after two tough losses away from home: a 34-point hammering vs. a top-15 Florida Atlantic squad and a 17-point defeat at Auburn. Tech played four games in a week, winning the first two against NCAA Tournament hopefuls Boise State and Iowa State. But to get back to the friendly confines of Cassell Coliseum, jumpstart a guy like Collins and pick up the first conference win of the year sends the group into exam week on a positive note.
The schedule lightens up in December with just four more games over as many weeks. Three of those are at home, starting with Valparaiso on Saturday (noon ET, CW). Vermont comes to Blacksburg a week later before Virginia Tech hosts American the following Thursday for a doubleheader with the women’s team. The only game between Christmas and New Year’s is an ACC clash at Wake Forest on Dec. 30.
As a result, this time is an opportunity for the Hokies to self-reflect. Young said he and his staff will look at the whole operation and see what they can adjust after learning so much about the group over a grueling five-game stretch.
“We need a shot of confidence,” Young said. “I thought I saw a team that was lacking some confidence and we’ve got really good players. The sun’s going to come up tomorrow, we’ve got a lot to look forward to. Let’s get on the stick here and start playing better basketball and doing it with great urgency and energy.”
Box Score: Virginia Tech 75, Louisville 68