Burning Down the Barn
When does mental toughness really show through? When is it most needed? When the situation is dire and hope is on the verge of extinction? During a long string of adversity? Or when comfortably on top? Or does it show one moment at a time, in good times and bad, and through triumphs and defeats?
Wahoos could have been forgiven for a sense of deja vu and dread with fifteen minutes left in this game, with a 13-point lead. To this point, the game looked eerily similar to last year's debacle. Last year in The Twilight Barn, the Hoos grabbed the advantage out of the locker room, led at half 37-23, then a quick pair of fouls put Isaiah Wilkins on the bench, and the Hokies were in the double bonus before being called for their first foul as the Virginia lead dwindled down to nothing.
On Wednesday night, the Hoos grabbed the advantage out of the locker room, led at half 37-25, then a quick foul put Isaiah Wilkins on the bench, and the Hoos were rung up for four fouls in the half without the Hokies being called for their first. All of the Cavaliers big men had 3 fouls, with little big man De'Andre Hunter carrying two.
So yeah, when Chris Clarke rebounded a Devon Hall miss and fired a long pass to Justin Robinson racing downcourt for a layup behind the retreating Virginia defense to make it 48-35 with 12:44 to go, Virginia fans could be forgiven for feeling a familiar foreboding.
Then Hunter missed a stepback turnaround jumper, Clarke grabbed the defensive rebound and the Hokies were off and running, with three-foul Jack Salt and two-foul De'Andre Hunter between the slippery, crafty Clarke and the basket.
There was Jack Salt playing King Kong swatting airplanes out of the sky, heedless of his three fouls, and suddenly instead of maybe a 10-point lead with Salt going back to the bench with his fourth foul (that would come soon enough), Tony Bennett was calling time out with a 15-point lead to set the strategy for the 13-0 blitzkrieg that would put the Hokies on their ass wanting only to go home and hibernate for a few days until the Pittsburgh Pussycats come to town and give them a chance to start picking their teeth up off the floor.
There it was: mental toughness. All that talk of deja vu and foreboding above is a bit of creative hyperbole because there was always a bit of a different feel to this one. For one, let's be fair: the ACC really disrespected this rivalry and this Tech team by putting their biggest game of the year two days after New Year, deep into the semester break. They took what could have been a high point of the conference season and buried it where nobody would notice. The Hokies did not have the support of their rabid crowd, so the waves of concentrated hatred didn't emanate from the TV as we watched at home.
But more than that, this Virginia team just had a different vibe to it. They were just grinding. It was methodical. We defend. Now we go run the offense. Time to defend. Turn the crank again. When the Hokies hit a three or crashed to the rim for a dunk, these Hoos just kept grinding, and didn't let Tech build anything. Through all the ridiculous foul calls, this senior-led, sophomore-powered team kept its collective cool and executed the game plan. They slowly ground the life out of the Hokies, like oil from olive pits.
Virginia led all the way, and Karl Hess might put this one on his "Quick Start" tally, but offensively it was not a good start. Devon Hall got the offense off on the wrong foot by making a three from the top of the key without the ball ever penetrating below the foul line. A couple of perimeter passes and there he was firing a long jumper. Ok, it went in. But it was not until the fifth offensive possession of the game that the ball touched the paint, when Hall finally dribbled into the lane and fired a pass to Mamadi Diakite for a layup and 5-2 lead. Yeah, five points on five possessions against a team with weak interior defense, to go along with a couple of turnovers, long jumpers leading to long rebounds, and one Salt moving screen. The only reason that Diakite layup wasn't cutting into a Hokie lead and momentarily quieting a raucous crowd was because the defense was so damned good the Hokies could barely see the basket much less put the ball in it.
It wasn't until the tenth offensive possession that the Hoos really started attacking the basket. Through nine possessions, they had touched the paint twice on one dribble penetration and one post entry, accounting for 3 of the 6 points. Yeah, 6 points in 9 possessions isn't exactly great offense. It was crap, primarily laid by Hall and Kyle Guy. Still, Jerome's driving layup gave the Hoos an 8-2 lead. Next possession down, Guy dribbled to the foul line and kicked it to Jerome for one of his howitzer shots. Next time down, Jerome drove the lane and passed back to Diakite, who drove toward the basket and kicked to Jerome in the corner for his second three. Then Hall got into the act and drove the lane for an awkward layup in traffic and the Cavaliers were on track.
The Hokies put up a fight for a while. After Buzz Williams called time out following a Diakite layup for a 10-point Cavalier lead, Tech scored four straight to cut it to 6. A few minutes later they cut an 11-point deficit to 7. But then they went zone with Guy and Jerome on the floor, and
That shot and Hall's follow the next time down gave Virginia a 31-19 lead and only life support in the form of 6 free points was keeping the Hokie heart beating.
That heartbeat got slower and slower as the second half went, finally flatlining with about six minutes to go. Full credit goes to Tony Bennett for managing his big men's fouls and always keeping two on the floor continuing to contest. Hunter was a big part of that, which Bennett acknowledged after the game. With the Hokies always having at least 4 guards on the floor, they were the ideal opponent for a lot of 4-man Hunter. Dre managed his fouls extremely well, as he ended the game with the same two fouls he possessed at the half.
Hunter could prove to be the lasting legacy of this game if his performance ends up being the breakout we have all been anticipating. For the first time this season, he produced against a legit major conference opponent. He scored more points against Tech - 14 - than he did in UVA's 7 previous games against A-10 or better opponents combined - 13. That he did it in the Twilight Barn in a big road test is even more encouraging. To be honest, I wasn't sure he had it in him, so his confidence and poise in a hostile road environment was a pleasant surprise for me. The Cheaters are another good opponent for him to show against, as he will be a great matchup for Cam Johnson on both ends of the floor.
Hunter joined his erstwhile classmates Jerome, Guy and Diakite in carrying the production load for the Hoos. They were the real story here, as this was a big game where it was the younger players who took the lead and did most of the work. Jerome was in charge. Guy led the team in defensive rebounds and his 10-point second half buried the Hokies. Mamadi was tremendously impactful with 9 points and 14 SPI in a mere 43 possessions. His plays were evenly split between offense and defense. His offense was a huge bounceback (as was defense for that matter, with BC being his worst game in a long time) as he was taking the ball into the paint instead of winding up for long twos and posting up for jump hooks twelve feet from the basket. He is starting to look like a player who is a consistent scoring threat when allowed to face up. Just dump the ball into him in the short post and then clear the damn lane and give him room.
While Wilkins was the Glue Hoo of the Game and Hunter was the Impact Hoo of the Game, and the men's basketball office erroneously gave Pillar Player of the Game to Devon Hall, Ty Jerome was clearly and unequivocally the best player on the floor Wednesday night. While Hall started the game throwing up standstill and stepback jumpers, Jerome was attacking the backboard and stepping into room-and-rhythm shots. Jerome got the offense on the right track, then Hall joined in and finally Guy was able to find his groove. Jerome was flawless with the ball and continues to show The Spirit of the Zay on defense.
While this was an impressive victory for the Hoos, it also revived the question of just how good is Virginia Tech? Preseason, we here at HOOS Place were underwhelmed when we analyzed them - none moreso than myself. Then they came out and put up big numbers and had an impressive contest with fabled Kentucky which made me take them more seriously and bump them up on my ACC Power Rankings ballot. But then Syracuse happened. And then Virginia happened. Two tough defenses, two Thanksgiving feasts. The blueprint for beating the Hokies is out there now.
Questioning how good the Hokies truly are is not to take anything from the win. Whether they are as good as the media played them up to be or as mediocre as we thought they were, beating them in The Twilight Barn is damn hard and thrashing them like the Hoos did is impressive. Other ACC teams will go in there and come away with PTSD. That it was done with the youngest Hoos cranking the pistons makes it even more indicative of the team's potential. Follow it up with a beating of the Cheaters on Saturday, and it will stamp the Hoos as true title contenders.
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