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  • Writer's pictureDavid Cunningham

Stingy Defense, Emphasis on Rebounding and Jalen Cone Lead Virginia Tech Past Notre Dame

My column on Virginia Tech Men's Basketball's Dominant Performance vs. Notre Dame, for The Key Play.

Mike Young was "certain" the Hokies would play better on Sunday against the Fighting Irish, and boy was he right. Virginia Tech was terrific on the boards and on defense in the bounce-back win.

Entering Sunday night, No. 19 Virginia Tech needed a standout performance defensively. The Hokies hadn't played a solid 40 minutes of defense since holding Clemson to 38% shooting on Dec. 15.

When Tech was challenged, it answered the bell, holding Notre Dame to 10.5% (2-19) shooting from the floor in the second half en route to a 77-63 victory in Cassell Coliseum.

"We guarded in the second half the way we wanted to guard in the first half," Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young said. "We communicated much better [and] we were able to keep a body on a body. We had a couple of textbook possessions. Notre Dame, who is really good offensively, had a tough time getting a shot.

"We had a goal: we wanted to limit Notre Dame to less than eight [three-pointers]. When our assistant coach that had the scout said that, I kind of took a step backwards like, 'Holy cow! Good luck with that one.'... They had five [three-pointers] in the first half, we had five in the first half. Extraordinary."

Tech allowed Miami to shoot 54% (40% from three) and score 38 points in the paint on Dec. 29. Against Louisville on Wednesday, the Hokies allowed the Cardinals to score 30 paint points and make 47%.

After the Fighting Irish shot 55% in the first half from the field, Virginia Tech (9-2, 3-1) ramped up the defense and allowed only two Notre Dame (3-7, 0-4 ACC) field goals. The Irish did score 21 second half points, but 16 of those came from the free throw line. All-in-all, Tech limited the Irish — which on average score 39.1% of their points from distance — to six triples (28.6%).

"In the first half, Notre Dame was catching it and shooting it," Virginia Tech guard Jalen Cone said. "We didn't force them to put it on the floor or force them to take tough shots. In the second half, we were there on the catch and forced them to take tough shots, which allowed us to get stops."

Cone had the signature performance in Tech's third ACC win of the season, scoring 18 points on 5-12 shooting, including making four of ten three-point field goals. He's been a force for the Hokies, especially as of late.

"He is a great igniter of momentum," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. "He can really get them going, and he jump-started them a few times."

Cone's four first half threes helped wrangle any sort of insurmountable Notre Dame lead and kept Tech within seven points (42-35) at intermission.

The 5'10" sophomore has received all kinds of praise since returning to Tech's rotation against VMI on Dec. 15 after an offseason foot injury. After a career-high 23 points at Louisville, Cardinals head coach Chris Mack called Cone "a freak show," saying "he's a terrific player." On Sunday night, compliments came from Brey and CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein.

A quote still rings true from when Cone committed to Tech in May of 2019: "I see myself being the center piece for distributing and scoring. They need Jalen Cone and Coach Young's system has Jalen Cone written all over it."

In 2019-20, Cone led the Hokies in scoring twice — against Syracuse (19 points) and Louisville (15 points). Through eleven games in 2020-21, he's led Tech in scoring five times.

After Tech's win over Longwood on Dec. 21, in which Cone led the Hokies with 18 points, Young outlined some of what makes Cone such a threat on the offensive end.

"He scores in bunches so he can really deflate a team's defense with his ability to stop on a dime and rise up and make them," Young said. "He's a good basketball player, one that we need as we head into the meat of our ACC schedule."

Safe to say the head ball coach knows his stuff. Cone has led Tech in scoring in two of four ACC contests this season.

He had help against Notre Dame, though. Three other Hokies joined him in double figures: Keve Aluma (15 points, 12 rebounds, second double-double at Tech), Hunter Cattoor (15 points, 3-5 from three, four rebounds) and Justyn Mutts (14 points, 7-13 FG, seven rebounds).

After an off-night against Louisville where he scored just 11 points on 3-10 shooting, Aluma bounced back and was efficient, converting five of nine field goal attempts and hitting five of six free throws. He scored eight of his 15 points in the second half.

Mutts and Cattoor helped carry the Hokies after intermission too. After shooting a combined 2-9 in the first half (1-7 from Mutts, 1-2 from Cattoor), the two lit up the scoring column, each adding 12 points in the second half. Mutts was a perfect six for six while Cattoor drained two threes and made four of eight field goal attempts.

"That boy [Cattoor] played a really good ball game," Young said. "I think he did a nice job on his match. He had Wertz on several possessions. I think with what we're doing with switching and trying to keep bodies on those guys that can shoot it so well, I thought he was active and engaged. Really moved his feet well.

"I thought his overall play in 26 minutes was pretty special. It went a long way in helping us win."

Tech was without forward Cordell Pemsl, which Young said was injury related and his status against Duke on Tuesday is doubtful.

"His back is all jacked up. He was at Louisville and was uncomfortable. He is with our medical team and they are doing everything they can to get us back with us."

Despite having less depth, the frontcourt came to play. True freshman David N'Guessan even contributed one basket and an assist in seven minutes.

"I don't think we walk out of this game with a win without the frontcourt playing the way they played," Cone said. "We watched the Louisville game and we saw that when the game came down to the last shot, we saw those extra possessions and extra rebounds they got to get second-chance shots. That was a big emphasis on today's game and I think Justyn Mutts, Keve Aluma and Tyrece Radford did a very good job giving us extra possessions."

In Mike Young's 43 games in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech is 11-2 when four players score in double figures. It's nice when you score the ball, but it sure makes life a heckuva lot easier when you rebound the basketball well.

The Hokies outrebounded the Irish 41-24 — that's a +17 margin for those of you keeping score at home. It's the third time Tech has recorded a double-digit rebounding margin this season (+18 vs. VMI, +14 vs. Coppin State) and just the fifth time in Young's tenure. In 2019, the Hokies had a +15 margin against Delaware State and a +19 margin against Maryland Eastern Shore.

The most impactful rebounding statistic, however, is that Tech grabbed 16 offensive boards, good for 15 second chance points. Last season, VT only grabbed more than ten offensive rebounds twice in ACC play — at Miami (13) and vs. North Carolina in the ACC Tournament (11) — and only five times overall. This season, the Hokies have reached that mark six times.

Sunday's 16 offensive boards is the second-most for Tech in Young's two seasons, only less than 19 in the aforementioned Maryland Eastern Shore game.

"We outrebounded them [Notre Dame] by 17. That'll win a lot of ball games for you," Young said. "I think we can rebound with anyone this year... I just hated how we [were getting] mauled on the glass night in and night out last year. I knew we would be better with this team, but it's got to be every time out. It's going to be enormous on Tuesday against Duke. I'm pleased with it, but there's work still to do."

The Irish fought and tried to crawl back into the game in the second half but Tech silenced them on the offensive end. Nate Laszewski, the ACC's most efficient scorer, was held to just three made field goals on six attempts. He scored 11 of his 17 points from the free throw line.

Dane Goodwin, who was in a slump as of late, came out of the woodwork and gave Notre Dame a lift in the first half with ten points. He finished with 12 points while Ryan Cormac was the only other Irish player in double figures with ten.

Prentiss Hubb and Juwan Durham, two players that were potential x-factors heading into Sunday's matchup, were held to a combined 15 points. The duo averaged 23 points entering the game.

In the first half, the Irish had ten assists on 16 made baskets and just five turnovers. Tech's stingy defense forced seven second half turnovers and allowed just one assist. Hubb committed five of those turnovers, which tied a season-high.

The win means the Hokies improve to 3-1 in the ACC for just the fifth time since joining the conference in 2004.

"I take absolutely nothing away from Louisville, but I don't think we were Virginia Tech on Wednesday," Young said. "I didn't think we were very good in the first half here, but we got some things together and that was as good as a half as we have had in quite some time."

Looking Ahead to Duke

Though nice to get back in the win column, Tech can't enjoy its victory over Notre Dame for long with No. 21 Duke on the horizon on Tuesday.

The Blue Devils got the best of the Hokies in both games last season, winning 77-63 in Blacksburg in December and 88-64 in Durham in February.

In last season's meeting in Cassell Coliseum, Tech led at intermission but couldn't hang with Duke's 50% shooting in the second half. The Hokies were ice cold from behind the arc, making just five of 20 attempts.

This year's Duke team is very talented but is young and has underperformed at times throughout the season. The Blue Devils are No. 14 in adjusted offensive efficiency No. 38 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Duke also ranks in the top 100 in four of the four factors categories, per — effective offensive field goal percentage, offensive rebound percentage on both sides of the ball and defensive turnover percentage.

Tech has shown they can score the ball consistently, even with some of the best defensive teams in the country like Clemson (No. 1) and Louisville (No. 22). If the Hokies want to defeat Duke for the first time in four meetings, they'll have to defend at the same quality as the second half against ND. Slowing down the Blue Devils is the key to success.

"​The moment we stepped in the locker room after the game, all of our attention turned towards our upcoming game with Duke," Cone said. "We talked about them a little bit, and we're starting to prepare for them now.​"

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech Athletics

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