Standing alone at the top of the key, Sean Pedulla tried to make a game-altering play with just over a minute to go and his team down by one point. Pedulla tried to cross the much bigger Nate Laszewski, but was tripped up and saw the ball stolen from Cormac Ryan. Instead of giving up, though, Pedulla immediately booked it back to catch up with Ryan, stealing the ball right back from his clutches and throwing ahead to Justyn Mutts for the go-ahead bucket.
“Well, I've gotten used to it because I see it quite often, a boneheaded play. But he's going to fight like heck to make it right,” Tech head Mike Young told reporters postgame. “Kid just made a heck of a play to get to it and strip that thing out of there. That was a wild sequence but a great play from Sean.”
Clutch plays like those were the difference maker in Virginia Tech’s nail-biting 67-64 victory over Notre Dame in the first round of the 2023 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament. The Hokies survive and advance to round two, where they will face the sixth-seeded NC State Wolfpack in the final game of day two Wednesday night at 9:30 p.m.
That's something we do in practice every day, it's winning plays, staying connected no matter what's happened,” said guard Hunter Cattoor. “Justyn had a good block, Rodney [Rice] had a good block, and those plays saved the game for us.”
Indeed, it was not only the headline defense plays Cattoor talked about above down the stretch, but also clutch shot making that proved to be the Irish’s undoing. Mutts got himself the final two buckets to close out the game for the Hokies and was a beast in all facets of his game.
“We played connected, to win a championship and play in a tournament like this against other great teams that matters a lot,” Mutts said. “Playing super hard and unselfishly, I thought we did that tonight.”
When the Hokies needed their veteran leader to step up in a must-win game, Mutts delivered to the tune of an 18-point and 13-rebound double-double, his ninth of the season and 25th of his career. Additionally, Mutts went 8-of-14 from the field, dished out four assists and blocked two shots in the second half.
Mutts, Pedulla and Cattoor all delivered extremely small, but so valuable little plays that counted for more than what was shown in just the box score. Ultimately, it was those seemingly little plays that swung the game in the favor of the Hokies.
“Those are the game-changers, your best players are sometimes the guys that have zero points but have just been making gamer plays all night,” Mutts said. Shoutout to MJ Collins, he might not be popping off the stat sheet but he was making huge plays for us.”
In addition to the fantastic play of Mutts, Tech’s Grant Basile led the charge offensively per usual. Basile finished with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting, knocking down two threes in the process as well. Basile also had one blocked shot and played great defense down low all night. He held Nate Laszewski to just four points on the night, 29 less than he had in the Hokies and Irish’s first matchup.
“Grant Basile is one heck of a basketball player,” Young said. “He is a really talented man, and I take nothing away from Grant.”
As has been the case for Tech all year long, it was the play of their dynamic frontcourt that made the difference for the Hokies. Mutts and Basile combined for 38 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks. The duo was dominant on both ends for Tech and led the charge against a Notre Dame team that did damage from the outside but not inside the paint.
“To have a wing man or a partner with Justyn Mutts, who is just an elite passer, is quite the duo, and those two guys have been doing great work together for quite some time now,” Young said. “Proud of Grant, proud of Justyn, proud of my team.”
Tech had to thwart off the advances of more than one hot guard for the Irish. Notre Dame’s Marcus Hammond and Cormac Ryan combined for 41 points on great shooting. However, Tech was able to limit Notre Dame to 26 points in the paint and Laszewski to four points after he dropped 33 on the Hokies head last month.
“Our team played better defensively, a lack of something sophisticated,” Young said. “That's it. We got to him. We made him put it on the floor. That's a big part of it. You let him catch it and shoot it, and he'll rip your heart out.”
Virginia Tech advances to round two where they will take on NC State Wednesday night. With a win, Tech keeps its tournament hopes alive. However, a loss would all but end the Hokies chances at the Big Dance. For now, Tech will enjoy the spoils of a close 67-64 victory over Notre Dame and live to fight another day at the ACC tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum.