One of the biggest storylines surrounding the Virginia Tech Hokies has been their significantly improved defense that has helped them rise into the top 10 for the first time in more than two decades. Tonight, the Hokies relied on that defense to avoid an upset and likely set up a top 10 showdown next Tuesday night at currently unbeaten Virginia.
Virginia Tech survived on the road to beat Georgia Tech 52-49, giving them their third ACC win of the season and their first 14-1 start since the 1982-1983 season.
Virginia Tech did this despite the fact that Georgia Tech's strong defense, now ranked as the 18th best in the country by KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency metric, was able to contain VT's leading scorer.
Despite averaging 18.8 points per game entering tonight's game, Georgia Tech was able to hold Nickeil Alexander-Walker to 1-13 shooting, including 0-6 from three-point range, finishing with 4 points. However, Alexander-Walker found other ways to get involved as he led the Hokies with six assists while only having 1 turnover in 36 minutes of action.
With their stud NBA prospect not having a great shooting night, Virginia Tech had to get points from other sources and a trio of veterans did just that.
Senior guard Ahmed Hill led the Hokies with 15 points while redshirt junior forward Kerry Blackshear scored 14 points and senior guard Justin Robinson added 10 points.
Hill scored eight of Virginia Tech's first ten points in the second half while Blackshear got most of his points from the free throw line, where he made 8-12. Blackshear Jr. also brought down 10 rebounds including 5 offensive rebounds, giving him his second double-double this season. The most impressive stat may be the fact that Blackshear's 5 offensive rebounds were more than the 3 offensive rebounds Georgia Tech had as a team in what was VT's second-straight dominant rebounding performance.
Points were hard to come by in this game as both teams were held to their season lows in offensive output. The Hokies even had a six-minute scoring drought at one point in the second half, from the 14-minute mark to the 8-minute mark before an Isaiah Wilkins three ended that scoring drought during an important juncture of the game.
Even with the offensive struggles, the Hokies' defense was able to step up and get the job done.
One example of that tough defense was sophomore guard Wabissa Bede against Jose Alvarado on the Yellow Jackets' last possession of the game. Bede denying Alvarado the ball combined with Robinson's on-ball defense on Brandon Alston forced the Jackets to throw the ball out of bounds with three seconds left to give the Hokies the game.
While Virginia Tech (14-1, 3-0) shot 29.8% from the floor in the game, Georgia Tech (9-6, 1-1) shot 44.7%, including 52.9% in the first half. Both teams were not great from behind the arc as the Hokies shot 18.5% (5-27) from 3 - Virginia Tech entered the game as the second best three-point shooting team in the country at 44% - while the Yellow Jackets shot 37.5% (6-16).
Even senior Ty Outlaw, who entered the game in the top 15 in three-point shooting in the country, went cold (0-3) from behind the arc for the Hokies.
Yet despite their cold shooting night, the Hokies found a way to get the win.
"I thought this win was so good for us, even though it sounds demented,” Buzz Williams said to Jon Laaser and Mike Burnop on the postgame broadcast. "I thought we did a lot of really good things and how it closed was just like Penn State, 43 days ago. I thought our response showed our ability to pass that same test.”
Against Penn State, Tech shot well (44% from the field, 52.6% from 3) but could not close the game out. They had 15 turnovers to Penn State's 16 and were outrebounded 36-29. Against Georgia Tech, the Hokies did not shoot well but forced 18 turnovers and only turned the ball over nine times themselves, all while out-rebounding the Yellow Jackets 35-32 including a significant 13-3 in offensive rebounding.
"To make shots and not win, to have to rely on something else to win, is really good, I think,” Williams said. He was very pleased with the way the Hokies fought in this game, not letting the Yellow Jackets take control of the game, even though his team did not have their best offensive night.
Since 2010, the Hokies have never won a game shooting less than 30% from the field, and only once have the Hokies shot less than the 29.8% shot against the Jackets under Buzz Williams - that was against Miami in 2016 when the team shot 29.6%.
Virginia Tech got Georgia Tech into foul trouble early in the game, heading into the bonus with a little over seven minutes remaining in the first half. The Hokies shot 9-10 from the charity stripe in the first half, giving them a 29-24 point lead heading into the break with those free throws proving valuable down the stretch.
The Hokies did not waltz into McCamish Pavilion like last season when they won 76-56 and played everyone on their bench; Josh Pastner's squad put up a tough fight, though the Hokies emerged victorious.
The Hokies play No. 4 Virginia next, although Virginia Tech does not play this weekend, unlike every other team in the ACC. Williams commented on the off-weekend with Laaser and Burnop, saying it's the first time in his career that his team has gotten the bye the second week of the season.
With a few days rest, Tech will have plenty of time to get their shooting squared away and prepare for Virginia's pack-line defense. The Cavaliers own the third most efficient defense in the country, according to KenPom, and hold their opponents to the second worst three-point shooting in the nation at 24.8%.
Now Virginia Tech can look ahead to next Tuesday's showdown in Charlottesville in what is almost certain to be a top 10 matchup against a Virginia team looking to avenge the home loss they suffered in primetime to the Hokies last season. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech will have an opportunity to go get what would be one of the nation's best wins of the season and make a run at a spot in the top 5 with an upset.
For now though, the Hokies will be focusing on resting up and finding their offensive rhythm after relying on their defense to survive against Georgia Tech.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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