Contributions from all over propelled Virginia Tech past No. 21 Clemson in an 87-72 win on Wednesday night in Blacksburg.
The Hokies (10-5, 2-2 ACC) lost veteran guard Hunter Cattoor to an injury late in the first half, and he did not return after intermission. Head coach Mike Young said the program will know more on Thursday morning. But they fared well in the face of adversity, taking each of the punches the Tigers (11-4, 1-3) threw at them and swinging right back.
“We just played better basketball,” Young said after the victory. “It helps now when the ball goes in the basket, but I thought we shared, Tyler Nickel had his best game in a Hokie uniform, just one of those team wins. Everybody played well. … We’ve got to get good play across the board, we did that today.”
Career nights from Sean Pedulla and Nickel headlined the result. Pedulla scored 32 on 9-of-16 shooting, including 6-of-10 from three, while adding seven assists, four rebounds and four steals. He’s the third Tech player with at least 30 points and seven dimes in Tech’s ACC era, joining Justin Robinson (Jan. 2019) and Malcolm Delaney (March 2010).
“I thought he was as much a floor general today as he’s been in some time,” Young said.
“I didn’t approach the game that much different than I had in the games I struggled, but I kind of just let it come to me a little bit more,” Pedulla said. “Tried to get my other guys going to start the game instead of coming right off the bat and trying to be aggressive. I think teams lock in on me with the scout and stuff and if I approach games where I’m just trying to be super aggressive all the time, it just makes their job a little bit easier in a way.”
Meanwhile, Nickel posted 24 points on 8-of-11 from the floor, 5-of-7 from behind the arc, and grabbed four boards. He blew by his previous career high of 16 points, which he set last season against The Citadel as a freshman at North Carolina. He and Pedulla scored 56 of Tech’s 87 on a night where Cattoor, who played 14 first-half minutes before his injury, did not attempt a shot.
“Every time the first one goes down, you’re ready for the second and the third, and then when they go down, you’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re in that moment,’” said Nickel, who made his first three treys. “It just kind of got that ball rolling.”
However, the real story was Tech’s balance. It needed everyone against a talented and physical Clemson team. A number of players answered that bell, including MJ Collins, Robbie Beran, Mekhi Long and Mylyjael Poteat.
Collins stepped up and defended Tigers point guard Joe Girard for the majority of the second half, who entered the night averaging 15 points per game. Between Cattoor’s first-half effort and Collins’ performance in the second, Girard finished with 12 points and was 3-of-10 from the floor with six turnovers. Collins had seven assists on the offensive end too.
“MJ — seven assists, defending Joe Girard because Hunter can’t play, chasing him all over the floor,” Nickel said. “He’s a huge X-factor. Seven assists, that’s just a big part of winning. Obviously, I had a good night, Sean was scoring the ball well and passing the ball well. Just the whole team effort of everyone doing their job to win, that’s what feels the best about it.”
While Collins defended the perimeter, Beran and Long grabbed eight and seven rebounds, respectively, on the interior while scoring eight points apiece. Poteat added three boards along with five points. Nine of the 10 players who saw action had at least one rebound, including true freshmen Brandon Rechsteiner and Jaydon Young. Cattoor was the outlier.
Beran and Long helped the Hokies corral 50-50 balls too. With less than six minutes remaining in a six-point game, Beran dove on the floor under Tech’s basket for a loose ball and, while surrounded by Tigers, found an outlet. His team got out in transition, and Collins found an open Nickel for three that extended the lead to 11 and forced Clemson head coach Brad Brownell to call a timeout.
“That energy is infectious,” Beran said. “A big key to the game was 50-50 balls and making that 70-30 in our favor, and a lot of that was just effort. You see your teammate and your brother get on the ground and it’s infectious. You want to get on the ground and get that next loose ball.”
It was the little things like that — the hustle plays that may go unnoticed to some — that helped the Hokies overcome playing a top-25 team without Cattoor. And they got the job done defensively too.
While they were efficient offensively, shooting 54 percent from both the floor (31-of-57) and from three (13-of-24), they limited Clemson to 44 percent, including a mark of 35 percent (12-of-34) in the second half. “Their team felt us,” Young said.
Ian Schieffelin led the Tigers in scoring with 15 points and added eight boards, but Tech did a fine job of quieting PJ Hall, a big man Young said is of All-American caliber. He was 4-of-13 for 11 points and scored just one two-point basket. He was 3-of-8 from distance, but that didn’t bother Tech. His game is predicated on scoring around the basket, and the Hokies did a good job of taking that away when presented with the opportunity.
Everyone had active hands too. Pedulla had four of the team’s seven steals, one of which came under the basket with four minutes remaining when he ripped the ball away from Hall. Young noted afterwards that his bunch finished with 28 deflections; before the game, a goal of 24 was set.
“You’ve got to carry that into every game,” Young said of his team’s defense. “We have the want to, we have the understanding, but now to execute it… We thought we needed 24 deflections. … We had 28, which is really, really good. They handle the ball, they do not turn the ball over, so big part of that game.”
Clemson forward Chauncey Wiggins joined Girard, Hall and Schieffelin in double figures with 12 points, but the Hokies contained the Tigers well. They also responded when necessary.
On five separate occasions in the second half, Clemson cut the margin to four points. Each time, Virginia Tech had an answer, ranging from a dunk from Poteat and a 3-pointer from Pedulla to a layup from Long and a jumper from Nickel. Everyone had a hand in the win, which brought Tech back level to an even 2-2 in conference play after losses at Wake Forest and Florida State.
“I think that’s the biggest story of this game, just realizing that we were the aggressors to a team that’s known for being tough and physical,” Nickel said.
It was arguably Tech’s best 40 minutes of basketball this season from start — its first 50-point first half since Jan. 2023 vs. Syracuse — to finish. It started hot, knocking down seven of its first nine attempts, and locked down on the other end in the second half without its best on-ball defender.
It was a stark contrast from back-to-back losses at Wake Forest and Florida State where the Hokies had spurts where they just seemed out of it. A stretch from the loss in Tallahassee where the ‘Noles, who beat Wake Forest on Tuesday, grabbed eight offensive rebounds in three consecutive second-half possessions comes to mind.
It wasn’t that way against Clemson in Blacksburg. Tech overcame the difficulties when needed and did so by committee. Whether or not that continues is to be determined — Miami, who dropped a home game to Louisville on Wednesday, ventures to Cassell on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ACC Network) — and Cattoor’s status will have an enormous impact. But Tech took steps forward against the Tigers regardless.
“We had some good adversity at Florida State, we didn’t handle it very well,” Young said. “Had some adversity at Wake Forest, didn’t handle it very well. I said it again at halftime, ‘Here it is. … So how are we going to handle it?’ They answered it and did so with flying colors.”
Box Score: Virginia Tech 87, No. 21 Clemson 72