After starting hot from the floor, Virginia Tech barely fell to Louisville on the road on Wednesday night, losing 73-71 in its first ACC defeat of the season.
The Hokies opened the game with a quick 11-0 run over the first 2:30 but soon went cold, hitting just one field goal over the next 13 minutes. Tech did score 13 points in the final 4:18 of the first half but trailed 36-31 at the intermission.
It was much of the same in the second half for the Hokies. After starting 1-10 from the floor, Jalen Cone (career-high 23 points) and Nahiem Alleyne (15 points) sparked Tech's offense, but the Hokies never pulled within three until there was 1:07 left in the game.
A 16-8 Tech run over the final five minutes gave the Hokies a chance at the win, but Hunter Cattoor's three-point attempt from around 35 feet bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
"We had a bad start," Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young said. "We didn't respond very well. We mishandled a couple of things. We missed some opportunities. I'm proud of them for hanging in there and doing everything except win the basketball game."
Agreeing with Young, that's one thing the Hokies did well against the Cardinals — battled until the end.
Cone and Alleyne led the charge for Tech (8-2, 2-1) and, despite trailing by as many as 14 in the second half, the Hokies slowly crawled back, even when Louisville (8-1, 3-0) seemingly had an answer for every bucket.
"We started to fight [in the second half]," Cone said. "We started to get stops. We finally started to get stops consistently and as we were getting stops, we scored some points at the other end. Fighting at the end is what helped us get back into it."
The three-headed monster of Carlik Jones, David Johnson and Jae'Lyn Withers combined for 50 of Louisville's 73 points. The trio scored 30 of the Cardinals' 37 second half points as well, and when the Hokies finally slowed down Jones and Johnson, Withers pulled through.
"He [Withers] was a little bit better than we anticipated," Young said. "He looked to be a lot more comfortable ... much more at ease with their offense. Part of that is how we felt like we had to guard Jones and Johnson. I wouldn't alter how we guarded them. ... Withers was the wild card."
From the Louisville perspective, everything changed when UofL head coach Chris Mack called timeout after Tech's early 11-0 run. Mack was unhappy with the Cardinals' discipline on the defensive end in the first few minutes, which he harped on during the timeout.
When Louisville ran back out onto the floor, the Cardinals looked like a completely different team. They played like it, too, scoring 19 of the game's next 25 points. Louisville never trailed again.
"There were some absolutely blown assignments [in the first few minutes]," Mack said. "You have to be the same team on game night as you are on the practice floor, or else trust is burnt with teammates.
"We battled one of the best teams in the league. Everyone had them number one in the power rankings and they earned that. I thought they played well and I think we're growing up. ... I think we're getting better."
So, what went wrong for the Hokies?
For starters, Tech couldn't seem to score consistently, and it wasn't always because of the Louisville defense. Young & Co. shot 43% from the floor but seemed to miss easy baskets at times.
There was a series with 17:45 to play in the second half where Keve Aluma had a shot under the basket and missed, Justyn Mutts got the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Tyrece Radford, who missed a three. A long rebound led to a runout by Withers, who was fouled by Cone on a layup and converted the three-point play.
It was just that kind of night for Mike Young's crew. Some easy looks couldn't fall, including four layups, three of which came from Aluma. The Berlin, Md. native had a career-high 26 points on Dec. 29 against Miami but was held to just 11 points on 3-10 shooting on Wednesday.
"I just think [Keve] didn't have his best stuff," Young said. "He wasn't as explosive in the paint. Yes, they did a nice job on him but man we were getting the ball to him in spots where we expect him to score with regularity and he had some difficulty. ... I thought we got it to him where we want to get it to him, he just didn't have all four pitches working tonight."
It was a tough scoring day for Tech's big men, with Mutts only scoring twice (two second half layups) outside of hitting two three-pointers in the span of a minute to spark the early run.
The Hokies couldn't seem to get Radford involved in the offense either. The Baton Rouge native who often slashes to the basket entered the game averaging almost 11 points and six rebounds per game. He finished with two points (1-4 FG, 0-3 3FG) and four rebounds.
It's not every day that Radford, Aluma and Mutts shoot a combined 8-23 from the field and score just 23 points (the trio averaged around 33 points per game entering Wednesday's contest). In fact, there's only been one other time this season that all three have scored less than average — against Penn State, they scored 12 points (eight from Aluma, four from Radford).
As a result, Tech turned to the bench and Cone, who helped carry the Hokies to the break with 11 first half points. He and Alleyne combined for 25 of Tech's 40 points in the second half.
"Jalen [Cone] probably kept us in it in the first half," Young said. "I'm probably lucky to come in down 36-31. He was really, really good again in the second. Naheim [Alleyne] - I didn't think he was himself in the first, but was really, really good in the second half."
Despite Alleyne and Cone stepping up and the Hokies receiving good minutes from Cattoor (seven points) off the bench, there were times on Wednesday night when Virginia Tech needed a bucket and just couldn't find one, no matter where the team searched.
the simple problem remains: tech has no one who can consistently create their own shot. (and the one guy they had...let's just say he opted out).— POPCORN MIKE (@BUZZKETBALL_) January 6, 2021
Though Cone often pops around a screen and leaps about ten feet in the air to get off his jumper and Alleyne can hit a step-back on occasion, there isn't that "clutch scorer" or player that can create his own shot like previous Hokies teams have had, such as Landers Nolley last season.
Cartier Diarra's decision to opt out because of COVID-19 hurts Tech at the point guard position, but more importantly, it means the Hokies have one less player that can work to get his own shot. Diarra was athletic and quick and could be a scorer in the clutch if needed.
Despite the shooting droughts, Virginia Tech competed on the boards (Louisville outrebounded VT 37-30) and won the turnover battle (10 VT turnovers to 12 for UofL). The Hokies only turned the ball over four times in the second half, and Wabissa Bede had a 3:1 assist/turnover ratio.
Sure, the Hokies allowed 30 points in the paint and 15 points off turnovers, but none of those categories outright cost Tech the game.
The three-point shooting, yet to be mentioned, didn't exactly cost Tech the game either, though the Hokies struggled shooting as a whole.
Tech made nine of 30 triples in the KFC Yum! Center, six of which came from Cone. The other three came in the first 2:30 — Mutts hit two while Wabissa Bede knocked down one for his only points of the contest.
The Hokies showed, to an extent, how balanced it can be at times. It's been a talking point with Young all season, how the Hokies don't have to live or die by the three in 2020-21. Wednesday was a great example of that.
Despite being down by as many as 14 points, only Cone made a three in the second half. The Hokies found other ways to score the ball, and even though the result isn't what Tech wanted, there are plenty of positive takeaways.
Young knows the Hokies have to score more consistently, as do the players. Even though the Hokies fell to Louisville for the 17th straight time, they showed promise, and they have another chance to prove themselves in a few days against Notre Dame.
"I really like my team," Young said. "I really like the direction of my team, and we are going to play better on Sunday, I am certain."