During Buzz Williams’ tenure, Virginia Tech has beaten nearly every team in the ACC. Duke, Virginia, North Carolina have all fallen to the hands of the Hokies, an almost unthinkable statement if one made it three years ago. However, the one thorn in the Hokies side dug just a little deeper yesterday afternoon.
Louisville once more proved to be too fast, too athletic, and too imposing for Tech to handle in the first meeting between these two sides in the last four years where the Cardinals were unranked.
“They’re really good. They’re really good,” Buzz emphasized after the game.
While this game will go down as just another Virginia Tech loss in series history, it was much more of a microcosm of both these teams. Since playing Miami and inserting Devin Wilson into the starting lineup, the energy level and intensity was noticeably better. But yesterday, energy could not overcome foul trouble and length, spurring a plus-17 advantage on the glass for Louisville. Despite shooting a better percentage, having a lower turnover rate, attempting more shots, and having the lead for twice the time Louisville did, Virginia Tech was on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
The game was tight throughout, as neither team built a sizeable lead in the second half. With a 55-50 lead, Virginia Tech and its home crowd were poised to make a run to take control of the game. However, it was Louisville that did so, with an unheard of six straight made three-pointers during an 18-6 run to give them a 68-61 lead with 2:22 left in the game. While much attention will be given to Louisville’s hot shooting, it was the offensive rebounding that made the fatal run possible.
“How many of those six threes were after an offensive rebound?” said Williams. “I thought we did a really good job defensively. We just didn’t finish the possession with the rebound enough.”
The players knew they were going to be outmatched in the glass as well, but they simply needed to be better than they were in the loss.
“They’re just bigger than us, we just needed to box out more and they kept getting offensive rebounds which just killed us,” said point guard Wabissa Bede.
“We thought the energy was there on both ends,” added Blackshear, who chipped in with an efficient 14 points and five boards before fouling out. “But a team like that, you definitely can’t give them a second opportunity.”
On the other side of the floor, the Hokies had numerous opportunities to convert from behind the arc. Virginia Tech’s ball movement was effective against a tough Louisville defense, but they only ended the game 6-of-21 (28.6 percent) from three. That was not a good enough performance on a day where their opponent was 12-of-27 from downtown, especially as Louisville began to extend their lead late.
“I thought we played fine on offense; I don’t think we were necessarily great,” said Buzz. “We need to shoot a higher percentage, get to the line more.”
While this loss was deflating, and there really is no such thing as a quality loss, it is not as if the Hokies played poorly. As much work as the players and coaches do during the week to prepare and install the game plan, sometimes the other team just makes more shots. Virginia Tech was contesting those shots like they had been since the Miami game. The Cardinals shot just 42.9 percent from the field overall, the fifth time in the last six games Tech has held their opponent to less than 44 percent from the floor. In the last three games against Louisville, the Hokies had allowed north of 90 points to the Cardinals each time but it was much more of a struggle for the visitors on Saturday.
“They shot a much worse percentage because our defensive presence really got them to shoot the shots we wanted them to take,” said Blackshear.
“Twenty-one percent of the time we forced them into a turnover – which is great as good as they are,” said Buzz.
As the games get more important during the home stretch, the Hokies know they have players that can impact the game off the bench. Bede spelled Justin Robinson for 13 minutes and played effective defense while proving capable on offense while Robinson was on the bench. Even though Louisville dominated the glass, PJ Horne gave the Hokies a fighting chance on the boards. Chris Clarke did not have his best game, but he has played well over the last five. These performances are a luxury that Buzz did not necessarily have over the last few years.
“I think PJ has really improved,” said Buzz. “I think Bede has continued to feel more comfortable with the ball in his hands. Pig’s energy against Clemson was ginormous.”
Recently, Virginia Tech has not been in foul trouble. That has allowed Buzz’s substitutions and game plan work much more smoothly. But in games like today where Tech does find themselves in foul trouble, having a bench they can rely on is paramount.
The Hokies failed to finish possessions against Louisville, but now face an even tougher task of finishing the regular ACC season on a high note. Virginia Tech welcomes No. 5 Duke on Monday, who shellacked the Hokies 74-52 in Cameron in what was the Hokies’ worst performance since early January. They then travel to Florida to face Miami for the second time this year. Virginia Tech has not beaten the ‘Canes on the road since December of 2013. The Hokies are in a good position in terms of their tournament resume, but one more win would cement a bid with solid seeding.