When Buzz Williams took over the Virginia Tech basketball program after the 2013-14 season, making the NCAA Tournament even once seemed like a long ways away let alone three-straight years. Seeing Virginia Tech make a Sweet 16 seemed impossible for a program that barely any fans even knew made an Elite 8 run in 1967.
However, those seemingly impossible dreams are now the reality after a second half comeback against Liberty sent the Hokies onward to the next round for the first time in the modern bracketing era of the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia Tech defeated Liberty 67-58 Sunday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 1967. Kerry Blackshear led the way for VT with 19 points and 9 rebounds while Justin Robinson had 13 points and 4 assists, Ahmed Hill added 14 points including a trio of threes, and Ty Outlaw had a 10-point, 11-rebound double-double.
Unsurprisingly, the joy and excitement from reaching a historic milestone for the program wasn't overlooked by Blackshear or any of the Hokies.
"For me, I just thought about all the people who have been a part of the program, people who helped me in life both on and off the court," said starting forward Kerry Blackshear. "This moment is so big for us, so big for everybody in this program."
At the beginning of the game, the Hokies looked to be a bit lethargic. They were able to knock down just four shots from the field for the first 11:52 of game time, and they missed their first 4 attempts from beyond the arc. That allowed Liberty to get out to a 15-12 lead.
To make matters worse for Virginia Tech, Liberty started heating up quickly from three-point land. Freshman Darius McGhee hit three triples in a span of just three minutes to help Liberty stretch their lead to 8 at 26-18. That forced the Buzz Williams to take a timeout.
The Hokies went on an 8-0 run out of that timeout to tie the game at 26 and seemingly seize some momentum. Instead, Liberty converted a three point play and then knocked down a triple on the next two possessions to stretch the lead again.
Virginia Tech did run a great play that got Ahmed Hill wide open from three on the last possession of the half, and he hit the open look. The Hokies went to the locker room trailing by just 3, which seemed to be a blessing considering how poorly they had played for much of the half.
To open the second half, it was apparent that the Hokies had made adjustments. Virginia Tech scored on three straight possessions, and they didn't allow Liberty to score for almost three minutes.
However, Liberty stormed right back with a 7-0 run to regain the lead at 41-36. For a while, it was punch, counter-punch between the two teams.
Finally, the Hokies offense started to wake up. A three pointer from Ahmed Hill and a layup from Justin Robinson gave the Hokies an 8-point lead with 10:21 to go, their largest of the game so far.
After that point, the teams traded baskets for most of the rest of the game. Liberty did cut its deficit to 3 at one point, but they never got any closer than that.
Justin Robinson had two highlight plays down the stretch for the Hokies. First, with 6:42 to go, he faked a pass to the outside, drew two defenders, and stepped into the lane for the scoop and score. Then, a few minutes later, he hit a pull up jumper from the free throw line to stretch the lead to 7 with 1:59 to go.
Liberty tried to foul a couple of times to extend the game, but Kerry Blackshear and Ty Outlaw both hit their free throws down the stretch. In the end, the Hokies beat the Flames 67-58.
With this win, Virginia Tech will advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in over 50 years as a program, which is something neither coach Williams nor the players are taking lightly.
"So very humbled, overwhelmed with gratefulness," said Williams. "Difficult to articulate how you feel, but to be able to continue to have a chance to play is an unbelievable feeling in the last week of March, for sure."
For Ahmed Hill, he just wants to prolong this fairytale senior season for as long as possible.
"I just was excited that me and this group of guys get to play again," said Hill of his emotions after the game. "We didn’t want it to be the last time we were together."
One area that was a big turning point for the Hokies in this game was defense, particularly in the form of steals. Virginia Tech had 10 steals in the game, compared to just 2 for Liberty. That allowed the Hokies to have more possessions and take 10 more total shots than the Flames, which is a big reason they were able to pull away, especially with VT's defense tightening even more in the 2nd half and Liberty's shooters going cold.
Next up, Virginia Tech will be matched up with Duke in the Sweet 16 on Friday night. The game will be at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC, and tip is set for approximately 9:39 pm.
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
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