Virginia Tech Hokies, Hunter Cattoor catch fire at right time to earn automatic NCAA tournament bid

Virginia Tech Hokies, Hunter Cattoor catch fire at right time to earn automatic NCAA tournament bid

BROOKLYN, New York — despite Hunter Cattoor’s struggles over the past month, his Virginia Tech teammates continually reminded him of the same thing: “You’re the best shooter in the gym, you’re the best shooter in the gym.”

On Saturday, he proved them right.

Cattoor made seven 3-pointers and scored 31 points to lead the No. 7-seeded Hokies to their first ACC championship in an 82-67 win over top-seeded Duke.

“He had a Klay Thompson night,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Cattoor, a junior guard from Orlando, hit four 3-pointers in the first 13 minutes of the game and then scored nine points in the first 4 minutes, 16 seconds of the second half to push Virginia Tech’s lead out to 10. Duke wouldn’ t get closer than five the rest of the game.

“Honestly, it was kind of a blur going through it,” Cattoor said. Coach [Mike] Young talked to us before in the locker room [and said] just go out there and have fun, and so I was kind of that. I dreamed of moments like this.”

After making better than 40% of his 3-point attempts as a freshman and sophomore and starting off similarly strong as a junior, Cattoor hit a wall during ACC play. Over his past 13 games, he has made just 25% of his 3-point attempts, going 4-for-13 in the first three games of the ACC tournament.

But he came out on fire on Saturday, consistently getting clean looks against Duke’s defense in the opening minutes. When the shots started falling, his teammates knew they had to find ways to get him open.

“It’s like I’m sitting on the couch watching TV,” senior guard Storm Murphy said. “He’s just not missing a thing. We want him to get every shot when he’s hot like that. We’re talking to him about continuing to just shoot it. Over the last month he hasn’t shot it so great, and he’s owned that struggle. He’s talked about that. we go.’ He’s believed that and then popped off today like that.”

With Cattoor as the catalyst, Virginia Tech put on a clinic offensively on Saturday night. The Hokies made things difficult on Duke’s defense by constantly having five players who could make plays off the dribble and from the perimeter. It caused problems for Duke’s big man duo of Mark Williams and Theo John, forcing them to get out of the paint and guard away from the basket. Virginia Tech carved up Duke’s defense off the dribble and with ball movement, getting open shots on nearly every possession.

The Hokies also limited mistakes, turning the ball over just nine times and allowing only four offensive rebounds. Combined with 10 3-pointers, Duke simply couldn’t keep up. The Blue Devils shot 4-for-20 from 3-point range and were held to seven second-chance points and three fast-break points.

In addition to Cattoor’s 31 points, star big man Keve Aluma had 19 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven assists.

“Aluma is a great player,” Duke guard Trevor Keels said. “Great style — pick-and-pop, he can pretty much do whatever. He’s gonna get going. He’s a great player. You’re not going to completely shut him out of the game. He does so much for the team, and he stepped up in big moments.”

Virginia Tech entered Champ Week squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, and even after beating Clemson, Notre Dame and North Carolina in consecutive days, the Hokies were still not guaranteed a spot in the field before Saturday’s title game tipped off. Now, there’s no reason to sweat on Selection Sunday — Virginia Tech is going back to the NCAA tournament.

It’s a position the Hokies were predicted to be in entering the season, but seemed like a far-fetched scenario in late January. Virginia Tech lost three straight games in ACC play to drop to 10-10 overall and 2-7 in the conference.

Since then, the Hokies have won 13 of their past 15 games, capped by four wins in four days this week in Brooklyn.

“When we’re 2-7, losing games we’re not expecting to lose, that burden, that doubt, creeps in,” Murphy said. “It’s tough to have that. It was a dark place. We didn’t want to be there, didn’t expect to be there. But our belief never wavered. We had more belief in those moments that we did in the summer. When it really got real, we pushed through and continued to grind.”

From .500 in January to the outskirts of the bubble entering the week, Virginia Tech now finds itself comfortably in the field, and could perhaps land in an even better spot than the 10-seed the Hokies received in last season’s NCAA tournament.

“It takes some time. Maybe a failure on my part. We’re a lot more talented than we were playing,” Young said. “You take that to heart. That’s hard to stomach. I knew when it came together, it would be a beautiful thing. And it came together. I didn’t think it would culminate in this, but here we are and we’re not giving it back, I can tell you that.”

Krzyzewski believes the Hokies are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time.

“They’ve been like a well-oiled machine,” he said. “They’re a team you need three or four days of preparation for, to put in your defensive game plan, and it still might not work. They’re the team they thought they were going to be at the beginning of the year.” They hung in there, probably got tougher, built more character, got so close. It shows up in the last 15 games or so that they’ve played.

While the win catapulted Virginia Tech into the NCAA tournament field, it was also a historic one for the Hokies’ program, marking their first conference tournament championship since joining the ACC in 2004. In fact, it was their first conference tournament championship since 1979, when they were in the Metro Conference.

Young called the championship “gratifying,” while Cattoor highlighted the significance of it.

“It means a lot just for the history of Virginia Tech,” he said. “We’re not going out just for our team here in the locker room. We’re doing it for all the players before and everyone that came through Virginia Tech before. It means a lot to be the first ones.”

Following the game, the players and coaches did the customary cutting down of the nets on the Barclays Center floor. In the news conference afterward, the players were asked what they were thinking as they climbed the ladder with the scissors.

“The first thing that went through my mind?” Aluma said. “Champs.”

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