A year ago, the Hokies welcomed a top-tier team in North Carolina to Cassell Coliseum. In that game, Virginia Tech allowed the Tar Heels to go on an elongated run in the first half. At one point, the Hokies found themselves down 36-16. They showed grit, heart, and toughness to claw back from a huge deficit, and eventually held a late lead. However, they failed to finish and North Carolina escaped Blacksburg with a five-point victory.
Despite the similarities between that loss and the loss to the Irish, the feel surrounding the result was noticeably different. There was much more encouragement after the loss to UNC, but much more disappointment Saturday afternoon. The Hokies expected, and frankly needed, to beat Notre Dame to keep pace in the hyper-competitive ACC. Granted, the season is still young. But the Hokies had a very good team on the ropes at home, and they needed to close that game out.
“They had every reason to quit, but they didn’t,” said Coach Williams in his postgame presser. “They also had every reason to win, but they didn’t.”
With multiple juniors and seniors on the roster, the Hokies should have the experience to close out tight games. In year number three of the rebuild, this team should be taking steps forward. With a middling 2-3 record in conference play, including a loss to an NC State team tied for last in the ACC, pressure is mounting on Virginia Tech to get results. That pressure will remain as the Hokies make their journey towards qualifying for an NCAA tournament bid.
Eventually, the mistakes the Hokies made as the game wore on cannot happen. There were simply too many of them to overcome against a ranked team.
“A tough, gritty, winning play by (Notre Dame’s) number 5,” per Williams on Robinson’s mid-court turnover. “Free throw rebound, I think we were down two, the ball goes through Med’s hands, you got to get it. Seth jumps up and tries to make a pass, turnover. Like I said, you can point to all of those little things in the last 2:41 and those were winning plays by Notre Dame, but losing plays by Virginia Tech.”
The Hokies also missed eight free throws in the second half and shot under 71% from the charity stripe for the eighth time in their last nine games. Many of the misses in the loss to Notre Dame were opportunities to take the lead late.
Tournament teams do not (in theory) make a litany of errors that Williams described. At some point the coach must take at least some of the onus of his team’s poor play down the stretch, especially because this is the second close game this season Virginia Tech has failed to close. During his first two years, Williams and the Hokies met or surpassed relatively low expectations. Now that expectations have risen, criticism of the team is valid. If they fail to meet expectations, it falls squarely on them. The Hokies finally have the talent and opportunities to make their mark and they must take advantage of those moments.
The good news is the Hokies have 13 conference games left to correct their mistakes. It all starts against Georgia Tech at home on Wednesday night.