For a team that has had inconsistencies in just about every aspect of its game at various points throughout the season, there's been one steady for Virginia Tech men's basketball — its fight.
More often than not, second-half rallies have come up just short for the Hokies. At the same time, however, those performances have provided fans with just enough optimism for the future.
That trend continued on Wednesday as Tech caught fire in the second half and rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit, only to have Kihei Clark's three with 2.2 seconds remaining left rival Virginia to a thrilling 56-53 ACC road win inside of a packed house at Cassell Coliseum.
"Hats off to Virginia and Coach [Tony] Bennett's team," Hokies first-year coach Mike Young said. "I absolutely take nothing away from their efforts, they played awfully hard as they always do. There's no consolation in getting your ears pinned back, but Virginia fought. The Hokies fought. That was a really, really good college basketball game, and I wish we could have gotten a better shake there at the end, wish we could have made a couple more plays there at the end."
The fact that Tech was only down 15 when the two teams went to the locker rooms at half was actually surprising. The Hokies shot just 5-of-24 from the field, including 1-of-13 from 3-point range, and scored a season-low 11 points — their lowest in a half in ACC play since 2004.
It was a strange sight for a team that has thrived on the ability to shoot threes this season at times, but was also a credit to the Cavaliers' defense. In the first meeting against Virginia, Tech scored just 17 points and struggled to ever get accustomed to the stingy "Packline Defense."
"We shot 20 percent in the first half and we were miserable going down by 15 [points]," Young said. "We had great shots in the first half and had the same shots in the second that we had in the first. We just happened to get the second half shots to go down. P.J. [Horne] made three 3-pointers. Jalen Cone had an awfully good half. Hunter Cattoor was really good. [U.Va] played awfully well and sound. I thought we fought and competed our tails off defensively in the first half to limit them to 26 points. I was surprised that they shot 45 percent from the field, and [in the second half we had] just a better level of movement and ball movement, but at some point, you just have to get the ball in the basket. It puts too much pressure on your defense if you don't. It's a much easier game, it's a better officiated game when the ball is going in the basket."
Tech opened the second half with back-to-back-to-back triples from Cattoor, Cone and Horne to cut the deficit to single digits. The Hokies continuously chipped away from there before Cattoor later hit another triple — his second — with 4:35 remaining to give Tech its first lead of the night.
"I hit the 3, came back and we had a lot of momentum," said Cattoor, who finished with six points. "The atmosphere in Cassell was great and I really thought we could pull it out."
Cone continued to do what he's done all season and played well from beyond the arc, but it was Horne that was arguably the biggest difference maker in the second half with a trio of three-pointers.
With the junior forward suddenly looking like the player that shot so well earlier in the season, Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite, who had 13 first-half points and 19 for the game, was forced to spend more energy on the defensive end and that allowed Tech to get more stops of their own.
"We were doing the exact same things in the second half that we were doing in the first half, but we thought that there were a couple actions that we could pick on and get some things freed up," Young said. "I thought that we screened better in the second half, and that certainly helped our play. Jalen got behind a couple screens and banged some shots. Diakite is such a terrific defender and he did exactly what they wanted him to do, but P.J. found the range and looked like P.J. again, so that was a welcome sight. There was nothing that we saw towards the later stages of the first half that we turned our attention to. We did exactly the same things in the second half that we did in the first half. We just simply started to make shots."
After shooting so poorly from deep in the first half, the Hokies went 8-for-14 from 3-point range in the second. Tech's bench outscored the Cavaliers 36-10. It was the eighth time this season that the Hokies reserves have scored 30 or more points.
"You knew they were going to make a run here, and they started attacking and made some long threes," Bennett said. "A few of them were contested and on a few of them we had some breakdowns because they were running good actions. So, give credit to how they attacked and what they did, and we weren't sharp. It was so long ago when we played them the first time, and we played one of our best games at our place. The 3-point shot is such a momentum swing, so they just started going. We could feel the crowd, and they sure wanted the bacon you could tell that, and when they got the lead this place got very loud. So, our guys responded well."
Mike Young called a timeout with 22 seconds to play after Virginia went on a 5-0 run to go up 53-51. Out of the timeout, Tyrece Radford drove hard down the lane toward the basket and scored to even the score up at 53-53 with less than eight seconds left in the contest.
But just as quickly as the crowd erupted in celebration of Radford's bucket, Clark came down on the opposing end and took a few dribbles in front of Cone before pulling up for a gut-wrenching three-point dagger with just 2.2 seconds remaining, giving the Cavaliers the lead and forcing Young to call his final timeout. Landers' Nolley's tie attempt from halfcourt sailed off the backboard at the buzzer.
"Sometimes we call timeouts, sometimes I decide not to, and thank goodness I didn't," Bennett said about the final play. "They [Virginia Tech] could've set it up, the score was tied, and sometimes it's just better to let a guy get momentum and attack. Kihei backed the guy up and what a beautiful, beautiful three. He's a winner, and I've said that often. I kind of challenged him — I didn't think he had the greatest second half with some of his defensive things, but he responded the right way with the way he played, and we needed every ounce of it there at the end."
It was another devastating loss for the Hokies, but one that showed some positives to work with moving forward. One change was Nolley coming off the bench for the second time this season.
With the redshirt freshman in a shooting slump that has lasted for over half of ACC play, Young opted to go with Radford, Wabissa Bede, Isaiah Wilkins, John Ojiako and Nahiem Alleyne as the team's starting unit. It was the first time this season Tech has started those five players.
"John Ojiako had been playing well," Young said. "I'm trying to get him to 21 or 22 minutes because I feel that good about his direction as a player, and I thought Isaiah Wilkins helped our team. He stuck it up in there and played a good basketball game against Duke. Nothing more than that. I've always been a lot more concerned with who finishes than who starts. Typically, who finishes is who helps us win. I thought the lineup there in the late second half did that."
Nolley didn't necessarily fix his shooting woes — he still finished just 3-of-10 from the field — but he did lead the team with 13 points and didn't force his shot quite as often as in the past.
"We started knocking down the shots," Cone said. "We played pretty good defense. Our shots weren't falling in the first half. In the second half, once the shots got going, our team started to get going. When no shots are falling, it changes the trajectory of the game. We just have to keep fighting. No matter what, we have to keep fighting. [Young] told us that the defense was pretty good, we just have to get shots to start falling and that's exactly what happened for us."
It was the fifth-straight win for the Cavaliers while Tech (15-13, 6-11 ACC) has now lost three in a row and nine of its last 10. Virginia has also now won four in a row against the Hokies.
The last time Tech defeated the Cavaliers was in 2018 in a 61-60 overtime victory in Charlottesville. The most recent victory in Blacksburg was an 80-78 double-overtime win in 2017.
Despite coming up short, the Hokies did maintain one trend they've shown recently and that's their continued effort in the second half and the willingness to play until the final buzzer.
And regardless of the struggles, that was enough to maintain Young's optimism moving forward.
"There's no point in getting into all of that," Young said. "We've got to find ways to win. We don't get into feelings around here. We just played a really good, hard basketball game against a really good opponent, and lost. We'll take tomorrow off, out of necessity, and reload. We'll get ready to go to Louisville and find a way to play a really good ball game and give ourselves a chance to win."