It was no secret the Hokies had been abysmal on defense in conference play. They ranked last in perimeter defense. Third to last in opponent’s field goal percentage. Last in blocks. Near the bottom in steals and turnovers forced. The Hokies’ 91-82 losing effort to Florida State was symbolic of all these issues for a squad that looked dead in the water with a 2-4 ACC record and a tough schedule looming.
However, it was not just the statistics that show up on the box score that indicate the Hokies’ poor defense that had been a byproduct of a lack of effort over the last few games. Players did not sprawl on the floor for 50-50 balls, rebounding was atrocious, and rarely did someone make a second or third effort to close out on an open shooter which resulted in the league’s worst three point defending team.
It had been a while since this group visibly left every ounce of energy they had on the floor. Last night’s upset win over No. 10 North Carolina proved to be one of those energy-draining, fiery, effort-filled performances.
“I’m exhausted,” said Buzz Williams emphatically, near the end of his postgame press conference.
One of the keys to the game was to finish defensive possessions. The Hokies struggled on the defensive glass early, but only allowed 1 offensive rebound to the fifth most efficient team at snaring their own misses in North Carolina after halftime. That marked improvement allowed the Hokies to make consecutive stops which sparked the transition game, where Virginia Tech scored 11 fast break points. In fact, by the time the final buzzer went off and the students stormed the court, the Hokies out-rebounded North Carolina 36-35 and matched their total on the offensive glass.
“The effort that we played with, the fight that we played with, the energy that we played with,” said Buzz. “To have that opportunity [Big Monday] to play with the gumption that we played with, I hope it’s a sign of things to come.”
It was certainly a team effort to keep the vaunted Tar Heels front court, specifically Luke Maye, from taking advantage of what may be the Hokies’ biggest weakness. Though Maye had 5 offensive rebounds, the Hokies were able to swarm the boards from every direction and eventually wore the Tar Heels’ down. Chris Clarke led the team with 8 total rebounds, while 4 other Hokies had 5 apiece (Bibbs, Blackshear, Robinson, and Alexander-Walker).
“One of the things I wrote up on the board that I haven’t wrote since I lived here was, when we take up space [box out], we have to run to the fight, and that fight is going to take place in the charge circle,” the head coach explained.
Another much improved aspect of today’s game was the perimeter defense. Virginia Tech came in allowing opponents to shoot an absurdly and unacceptably high 44.8 percent from beyond the arc. They held the Tar Heels to just 42.9 percent shooting from the field and 32.3 percent from downtown in the win. The Hokies’ rotated, helped, and closed out with energy which allowed them to contest more shots.
The effort the Hokies showed on the perimeter blocked off the interior, protecting Kerry Blackshear from having to help from the weak side to contest shots. Blackshear’s foul trouble has been one of the most notable storylines this season, but he did not pick up his first foul until there was just 3:35 left in the game. That is certainly a far cry from playing just 18 minutes against FSU before fouling out with over 10 minutes left.
“My teammates did a really good job of rotating, and not needing rotations most of the time because we did a really good job of keeping players in front on dribble moves and stuff, and we played gang defense and we loaded to the ball really well tonight,” said Blackshear, who continues to be one of the team’s crucial pieces, if not the crucial piece.
Of course, it is impossible to discuss this team’s energy without it’s root source – the head coach. Williams was as demonstrative as ever on the sidelines, even choosing to play a little defense on the sideline himself. With their backs against the wall and a head coach showing that much passion, the players responded.
At one point, Buzz mistakenly thought there was a media timeout and ran out to half-court to high five PJ Horne for “taking up space” on the defensive glass during a dead ball. Later, Justin Robinson missed a free throw but Nickeil Alexander-Walker fought for the loose ball and came up with an offensive rebound. Buzz’s reaction was a mixture of passion, joy, excitement, and fire. But the players are used to that. It is simply who Buzz is.
“That’s him on a day-to-day basis,” said Blackshear. “Not everyone sees it but he’s a really energetic coach and we feed off of him just as much as he feeds off of us and we really appreciate him for that.”
Buzz and the Hokies will have a few extra days to get over their exhaustion. But on Saturday in South Bend, Virginia Tech needs to harness the same type of energy and fight that they showed last night.