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Teel: MJ Collins, the least-likely candidate to take a decisive shot, lifts Hokies over Duke

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Duke Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s Michael Collins Jr. shoots the front end of a one and one in the final moments the Holies’ win over Duke on Monday night in Blacksburg.

BLACKSBURG — Thanks to Grant Basile, Hunter Cattoor, Sean Pedulla and Justyn Mutts, Virginia Tech had shredded Duke’s defense like no opponent this season. The foursome had combined for 64 points on 59% shooting and had made nine 3-pointers.

So with the Hokies and Blue Devils tied in the waning seconds Monday night at Cassell Coliseum, and with the home team beyond desperate for a victory, which of those four would hoist the decisive shot?

None of the above.

Even with those far more accomplished teammates on the court with him, freshman reserve guard MJ Collins, a 34.2% shooter on the season, trusted his instincts and made the 12-foot jumper that delivered Tech a 78-75 win.

“I was confident in the shot,” Collins said, “and it fell.”

Suffice to say, during a timeout with 35.3 seconds remaining, Hokies coach Mike Young did not design a set for Collins. Though Collins had been an invaluable second-half spark, Pedulla was the first option, but when a driving Cattoor passed the ball to Collins in the right corner, the rookie did not hesitate.

Collins beat Mark Mitchell off the dribble and elevated for the pivotal shot with 13.6 seconds left, giving Tech a 77-75 lead. Collins then rebounded freshman Tyrese Proctor’s missed 3-pointer, absorbed a foul from Mitchell and split two free throws.

“He’s having a very good freshman year,” Young said. “His play over the last three [games], he’s graduated to an elevated class status. He’s not playing like a freshman.”

A 6-foot-4 wing from Clover, S.C., Collins arrived in Blacksburg with none of the acclaim you’d associate with Duke’s annual haul of five-star prospects. But in the Hokies’ previous two outings, he scored 8 points at Virginia and 6 at Clemson, raising his scoring average to 3.5.

Tech (12-8, 2-7 ACC) dropped both contests, extending its losing streak to seven games. Heaven knows what an eighth consecutive setback, especially one so tense, would have done to a team that already has endured six defeats of 5 points or less.

That didn’t happen, in large measure due to Basile (24 points and 8 rebounds), Pedulla (16 points, 5 assists and 2 steals), Cattoor (15 points and 2 steals), Mutts (9 points and 6 assists) and, most unlikely, Collins.

He contributed 6 points, five rebounds and an assist in 21:45 of playing time. All of his points, four of his rebounds and his dime came in the second half, when Duke (14-6, 5-4) reclaimed the lead and the Hokies were wobbling.

With Tech trailing 59-55, Collins hit a right-corner 3-pointer over 6-6 Jacob Grandison. With the score knotted at 65, Collins recovered a loose-ball rebound of a Pedulla miss, extending a possession that ended with a Basile bucket.

“And I’ve got him guarding [6-8] Mark Mitchell,” Young said. “Good luck to you at 6-foot-4. And he fought his tail off. He did a great job for our team. ...

“I’ve said before, young people think that to impress coaches [they’ve] got to score. We talk about it every day: hustle plays, 50-50 balls, rebounding, guarding your man, helping a teammate do his job. And he’s always embraced that.”

Indeed, while Tech (57.1% shooting) became the first Duke opponent to make at least half its field goal attempts this season, more subtle moments were essential in surviving a season-high 29 points from Blue Devils freshman center Kyle Filipowski.

Those moments included Collins’ offensive rebound, pestering of Mitchell (8 points) and clutch assist on a Basile bucket that broke a 63-all tie.

The question now becomes whether Monday’s result leads the Hokies to rediscover the form that fueled an 11-1 start, a burst highlighted by conquests of Penn State, North Carolina, Dayton and Oklahoma State.

Whatever is needed, count Collins in.

“We already have scorers,” he said. “So just being a dawg on defense. Taking a charge. ... Offensive rebounds. Those are things I feel I can provide.”

The transition to college basketball “took me a minute,” Collins added. “But now I feel like my confidence is sky high, and I plan on keeping it that way.”

David Teel

dteel@timesdispatch.com

@ByDavidTeel on Twitter

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