BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Here at Barclays Center, a champion will be crowned. With top-seeded Duke squaring off against No. 7-seed Virginia Tech and looking for its 16th and final ACC tournament title under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Hokies lead 42-39 with 20 minutes to play. Here are five of our observations from the opening period.
Considering that flames erupted when the Blue Devil starting lineup was introduced, we maybe should have seen this coming. Out of the gate, Duke was hot offensively, hitting five of its first six shots, punctuated by a contested jumper by freshman forward Paolo Banchero from long-two territory on the left wing.
But Virginia Tech, looking to punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament via the automatic bid, had its share of success from the field early. The Hokies were shooting 71% from the floor at the under-16 timeout, with junior guard Hunter Cattoor drilling a pair of triples and Storm Murphy nailing a trey from the left corner. Efficiency was the buzzword of the early stages of the contest, and the Hokies led 14-12 when the proceedings went to commercial for the first time.
Aluma limited early, but closes strong
Through three ACC tournament contests, Virginia Tech forward Keve Aluma has been as good as it gets, averaging 19 points per game on 51.2% shooting from the floor. Credit for the Hokies’ run to this point goes to multiple players, particularly sophomore guard Darius Maddox for his game-winner against Clemson in Wednesday’s second round and the steady Murphy, but Aluma is the straw that stirs the drink for this group.
In the opening period Saturday, though, Aluma did not get off to a quick start, shown best by his first true low-post touch resulting in a deflection by AJ Griffin and a steal by Wendell Moore Jr. Even when he stepped to the charity stripe with just under 10 minutes left until the break, the All-ACC Second Team selection missed both. Aluma came alive late in the half, though, showcasing his post expertise and finishing with 11 points by the time the buzzer sounded.
One word to describe Virginia Tech’s offensive attack? Methodical. The Hokies utilize a bevy of dribble handoffs to slow it down, a trait best reflected by their rank of 344th in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.
That meant that Duke needed to speed things up in order to make Virginia Tech uncomfortable. For stretches, Duke did just that, as Moore and sophomore guard Jeremy Roach looked to push in transition constantly. But Virginia Tech’s half court execution and ideal shot selection still gave it an edge, as the Hokies shot 57% for the half.
Energy off the bench
Per usual, the Blue Devils’ first substitutions were Roach and Marquette transfer Theo John. Both provided their trademark characteristics, as Roach confidently hit a three to give Duke the lead and John was his typical self in the hustle department. The graduate student did an admirable job guarding Aluma on one trip down the floor, and was always around the rim, fighting for loose balls. For the period, Roach finished with five points on 2-of-2 shooting, while John is still to collect a rebound.
Player of the half: Paolo Banchero
Back in December, Banchero racked up 23 points and 7 rebounds in a 76-65 Duke win against this very same Virginia Tech group. So far Saturday, the freshman has been his typical self offensively, hitting multiple midrange jumpers en route to 10 points at the half. He bailed the Blue Devils out in the first half against Miami Friday, and he may have to do it again in the second period Saturday if Duke is to capture the ACC tournament title.
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.