"How 'bout them Hokies?"
The signature phrase from Mike Young has been emblematic of the Virginia Tech basketball faithful's outlook, particularly of late, and for good reason.
After finishing 16-16 in 2019-20 and being picked 11th in the ACC preseason poll by the media, Virginia Tech is one of eight teams in the country with four wins over AP Top 25 foes, the latest victory coming in its 66-51 Cassell Coliseum rout of No. 8 Virginia.
Only No. 1 Gonzaga has a better resume against ranked opponents at this point in the season. The Hokies and 'Zags are the only two schools on that eight-team list to have at least one win on a neutral floor and post an undefeated record against the AP Top 25.
Virginia Tech men's basketball is one of eight teams in the country with four wins over AP Top 25 opponents.The Hokies are the only ACC team in the group and the only team outside of Gonzaga to have a top 25 win on a neutral court. pic.twitter.com/byy84UKOQx— David Cunningham (@ExcelSheetStats) January 31, 2021
To add to that, Young & Co. are 7-2 in the ACC, the best start in the conference since Tech joined the league in 2004, and on Saturday night earned the program's first win over UVa since Kerry Blackshear's game winner over the No. 2 Cavaliers in 2018.
It's been a wild two weeks for the Hokies. They barely scraped out a win at Wake Forest. Their contest against Boston College was postponed because of COVID-19. That was followed up with a very poor showing at Syracuse and culminated with the indefinite suspension of star guard Tyrece Radford.
Classic Tech-UVa storylines were poised to repeat themselves ahead of the Commonwealth clash: the Hokies on a slump but needing another quality win against one of the best defenses in the country, and this go-around UVa had offensive prowess to boot (No. 11 Adj. Efficiency, No. 16 3P% per KenPom).
Indeed, that was the tale that played out in the first half. Kihei Clark, UVa's pesky 5-foot-nine point guard, went off for 11 points and hit three treys. The Hokies had to rely on Keve Aluma's 16 points to even remain competitive by intermission, and yet they still trailed by eight, 29-21.
The rivals were in similar positions through the first eight minutes of the second half. The Cavaliers led 42-34 with 12 minutes to play and Tech hadn't scored a bucket in almost three minutes.
Then all of a sudden, something magical happened. The script flipped. Tech made shots on one end and got stops on the other. It only takes one hand to tally the amount of times such a prolific turnaround occurred over the Tony Bennett era.
Nevertheless, the Hokies put their head down and outscored UVa 31 to nine over the last 12 minutes. That included a 19-0 run for Tech over 6:10, from 7:22 to 1:12 against the bunch that led the ACC in defensive efficiency. Packline broken.
Between the 12- and eight-minute media timeouts, the Hokies seized control of the game and made four straight buckets, including three triples.
Wabissa Bede's three-pointer with 8:57 brought the UVa lead to one, which Jay Huff pushed back to three, but Hunter Cattoor's deep bomb with 7:22 to play, followed by a Bede steal and a Huff foul, swung all of the momentum in Virginia Tech's favor.
Over that backbreaking 19-point stretch Tech hit six of eight field goals and only turned the ball over once, a memorable shot clock violation with 1:28 left that Cattoor decided to slam home anyway.
As it picked away at the lead and eventually built its own, Tech forced Virginia to miss ten field goals in a row over the same period. The Hokies' defense was stifling and physical.
Bede wouldn't let Clark budge on the offensive end, and there were even a few moments, from this writer's vantage point in Cassell, where Clark complained to the ref about Bede bumping him and grabbing him.
Aluma and Cattoor each added blocks and Tech forced UVa into the thin end of the shot clock multiple times. Talk about a role reversal.
"I give Coach Young credit because their team is scrappy and physical," Bennett said. "You could feel how badly they wanted it. They were hungry and gritty, and I didn't feel like we answered that."
Aluma caused UVa problems all night, especially in the first half, and he forced Bennett to put five different defenders on him because he got so many UVa players in foul trouble.
Huff, Sam Hauser, Fancisco Caffaro, Trey Murphy and Justin McKoy all tried to guard the six-foot-nine redshirt junior. None succeeded.
Aluma actually drew nine fouls. Huff picked up four while Hauser, Caffaro and Murphy each committed three. What's more impressive is Aluma did all that dirty work underneath the basket and finished the game with zero fouls.
He attempted eight free throws (made seven) and couldn't be stopped on the inside, scoring 29 points, besting his previous career-high of 26 points vs. Miami, on 10-15 shooting. He also grabbed ten rebounds for his fourth double-double in maroon and orange.
"He's good. You can see he can get us into foul trouble," Bennett said. "When he hit a couple of threes, that put some pressure on us. We tried to trap at times and sometimes it was good and sometimes they made some plays out of it."
After Aluma went off for 16 in the first half, which accounted for all but five of Tech's points, UVa tried everything to stop him, double-teaming him almost every time he caught a pass. The Cavaliers even threw three defenders at him on occasion.
All that did was open up Aluma's teammates.
Tech proceeded to make 60.9% (14-23) of its attempts from the floor and 70% (7-10) from long range. Cattoor had himself a second half, scoring 13 of his 15 points, while Bede (seven points), Jalen Cone (six) and Nahiem Alleyne (three) all got in on the action.
The game slowly turned on its side — Tech couldn't miss and UVa couldn't hit — and the Hokies rode the momentum off into the sunset.
"That team is so deflating," Young said. "You guard your tail off and Hauser (Sam), Kihei (Clark), Jay (Huff), one of those guys are banging a three with three seconds left on the shot clock and they had four of those in the first half. I thought we were picture perfect. I thought we were right there and we were doing a nice job, just a bit more toughness and resolve throughout the shot clock, and you better be against that bunch or they'll burn you.
"This team of mine, they'll fight you tooth and nail, night in and night out. That performance defensively was exceptional, but it was not a surprise."
The Hokies guarded more than their tail off. They forced Virginia to shoot 37% from the floor, which is the Cavaliers' lowest shooting percentage in any game this season. Their previous low was 41% in the Nov. 27 loss to San Francisco.
Even on the day after Christmas against the powerful Gonzaga, the 'Hoos hit 48% of their shots.
Not against Virginia Tech, and not on Saturday. The Hokies didn't have any of it.
Tech found its will to win and locked UVa down in the second half. They crashed the glass (30-24), only allowed four free throw attempts, didn't let any player score more than 13 points (Huff) and forced the Cavaliers to shoot 30% in the second half.
The Year One to Two leap has been impressive. Down eight at halftime without Radford, Cartier Diarra and Cordell Pemsl, Tech fought like heck and found a way to mount a comeback.
"The biggest thing is maturity," Cattoor said. "We had a really young team last year and it was the first year for a lot of guys playing in the ACC. I think having a year under our belt and those experiences have really helped us."
In a season-and-a-half at Tech, Young has fared 5-5 against the AP Top 25 (4-0 this season) and has wins against Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Jay Wright, Mike Krzyzewski and Tony Bennett. Combined, the six have won 13 NCAA Tournament titles.
Those that criticized Whit Babcock's hire in April of 2019 look pretty silly now, eh?
Young, the Radford native who admitted that his love of basketball blossomed in Cassell Coliseum while watching Allan Bristow and Tech's 1973 NIT Championship team play, has shown that he's the perfect culture fit in Blacksburg. From his pregame popcorn to him thanking the Tech pep band for coming to tonight's game, Young has cultivated great culture on Washington St. And the wins have followed.
"I'm having the best time coaching this team. Not just because we're winning a lot, but because they're about the right stuff. It's been a lot of fun for an ole boy like me."