BLACKSBURG—Two distinctly different men’s basketball teams walked off the Cassell Coliseum court Tuesday night.
One was an experienced squad that has established its identity and boasts three marquee wins.
The other team was Duke.
No. 20 Virginia Tech was justifiably confident after fending off the 19th-ranked Blue Devils 74-67.
The Hokies (10-2, 4-1 ACC) have beaten three ranked foes this season, including a November win over Villanova and a December victory over Clemson.
“We’ve got the potential to make a run for it,” third-year sophomore forward Tyrece Radford said after Tuesday’s win.
A run for what?
“The title,” Radford said.
“The championship, baby,” Radford said with a laugh.
In addition to Radford, the Hokies started fourth-year juniors Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts, senior Wabissa Bede and sophomore Nahiem Alleyne on Tuesday. Three reserves played more than 10 minutes in the win—sophomores Jalen Cone and Hunter Cattoor and freshman David N’Guessan.
“I’ve got good players … that have played a lot of basketball around here now, when you consider the minutes that Cone, Alleyne, Cattoor … played a year ago,” Tech coach Mike Young said. “Aluma’s in his … fourth year as a college player. Tyrece Radford. I like my team and the things that each individual brings to the unit.
“I look down this roster—Aluma, Mutts. Bede is playing good basketball for us. Alleyne, Cone or Cattoor, somebody is going to have a 17-, 18-, 19-point game and really make it hard for you. There are going to be several nights when two of them ring the bell like that.
“It’s a difficult team to scout because we can get you in a variety of ways. And I think that’s the makings of a pretty good club.”
Aluma said the Hokies have “bought in” to “a great coaching staff.”
“They can be just as enthusiastic as us,” Aluma said. “They light a fire under us.”
Duke (5-3, 3-1), which entered Tuesday having played the third-fewest games among Power Five teams, fell to 0-3 against ranked foes this year.
“[Tech] … is mature and they understand their roles. We’re still trying to figure that out,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Tech led from the opening basket. The Hokies built a 29-12 cushion with 9:16 left in the first half.
“They played great defense—really strong, physical,” Krzyzewski said. “They played tough and they knocked us back.
“We have not played in an ACC game like that this year. Our players, especially the freshmen, they haven’t been in a game like that.
“We learned a lot tonight in just how hard an ACC top-level game is. You have to be there for 40 minutes.”
The Hokies led 46-34 at halftime after shooting 63.3% from the field in the first half.
“They are really good,” Krzyzewski said. “Mike’s team knows who they are. Their substitution patterns were great. They aren’t the only team ahead of us in that regard, where we are still finding out about our team.”
Duke responded in the second half and cut the deficit to 56-55 with 13:12 left. But Tech never lost the lead.
“I saw a level of poise [on Tech],” Young said. “I didn’t want to call timeout there when Duke took off on us in the second half. … I wanted to see us figure it out and fight through it.
“I was pleased with their patience, their poise and togetherness. They continued to share. And I do think that is a mark of a team that’s been there and done it and knows what it takes to get out of games like that with a win.”
Aluma, a 6-foot-9 center, had two baskets and a free throw to extend the lead to 61-55.
Aluma finished with 17 points, including 13 of Tech’s final 20 points.
“You start to tighten up a little bit and Duke locks in a bit more defensively. … To be able to put that thing down there [inside] to that big rascal and let him do his thing is a real luxury,” Young said.
Aluma was not the only standout Tuesday. Radford had 18 points and 12 rebounds.
“Radford was the best player on the court,” Krzyzewski said. “His intensity and just how hard he played really helps their team immensely. He’s a really good player.”
“My energy was different. I just left everything on the court tonight,” Radford said. “Kept my team motivated, kept pushing, telling them, ‘Play to win, don’t play not to lose.’”
The 6-foot-2 Radford was the game’s leading rebounder.
“Tyrece was an animal,” Aluma said.