Virginia Tech’s Senior Day was special, to say the least. Honoring both Justin Bibbs and Devin Wilson for their time in maroon, the Hokies rallied from a 15-point first half deficit to defeat the No. 5 Blue Devils despite only leading for one minute of the entire game. Twelve days ago in Durham, Duke embarrassed the Hokies and at one point tonight, it looked like it was fated to happen once more. However, it did not. Chris Clarke’s tip-in with 4.1 seconds left sent Cassell into a frenzy, and Grayson Allen’s missed three at the buzzer meant bedlam in Blacksburg as the students hopped out of the stands and onto the court.
Duke may be the most talented team in the country, especially with Marvin Bagley III back in the lineup. Bagley missed the first meeting between these two sides but Duke did not need him. Last night, the future NBA lottery pick scored 12 points and had seven boards – relatively pedestrian numbers for a player of his caliber. The 6’4” Devin Wilson gave a Herculean effort to slow the big man down, but it was very much a team effort.
“Just helping one another; man gets beat on the drive we’re going to help” said Blackshear on the key to slowing Bagley. “Keep energy, guard your own man, but realize that when you are playing aggressive on defense you have to help the guys around you.”
That energy has been a consistent theme for the Hokies ever since they dropped one to Miami in Cassell. Devin Wilson’s insertion to the starting lineup has helped with that. Despite getting pounded on the glass and ending with a minus-14 rebounding margin, the energy was the difference tonight, a sentiment echoed by both coaches and the players.
“We knew we were going to face a very energetic and outstanding Virginia Tech team,” explained Coach Krzyzweski. “They [Virginia Tech] worked hard, they’re a good basketball team. They stuck in there and made a big play in the end.
The Hokies’ energy eventually wore the Blue Devils down. Defenders were active in their zones and locked into the passing lanes. As a result, Duke made critical mistake after critical mistake ending the game with 18 turnovers. And with their high energy levels, the Hokies took advantage of that with 24 points off turnovers. It was a huge reason Duke shot just 40.7 percent from the field and the Hokies held maybe the best three-point shooting team in the conference to 8-of-28 from behind the arc.
Perhaps the best example of this happened as the game drew to a close and the Hokies began their comeback. Duke scored a layup to put them up 58-49 with 7:02 remaining in the game. They failed to convert on the rest of their field goal attempts and turned the ball over five times.
“Wanting to win, senior night, just remembering what happened at their place,” said Nickeil Alexander-Walker, with an outstanding 17-point showing on possibly the biggest stage of the season. “We can’t let them sweep us and come to Tech. It just really meant a lot to all of us so we played like it, with more passion.”
The Hokies are now 2-0 against Duke in their last two meetings in Blacksburg. However, in the meeting during Bibbs’ freshman year, the Hokies faced Duke in Cassell and nearly pulled off a massive upset before falling in overtime. Bibbs remembered that game during his freshman year, and was still ever so slightly bitter that the Hokies could not pull that one off. This win, with the entirety of the student section being as vocal as they could be, had the utmost significance for the senior in his final home game.
“It just felt great how we won, what was at stake, my last game here,” said Bibbs. “It was tremendous to our program, to myself, to our guys. We felt like we should have won the first time my freshman year.”
Bibbs and Wilson would have loved if the game turned out to be a blowout like last year’s win over the Blue Devils. However, the Hokies found themselves down 29-14 and the game looked to be teetering out of balance quickly. Against teams like Duke, those deficits can seem insurmountable. The Hokies never wavered, and slowly but surely clawed their way back into the game with grit and gumption. Point guard Justin Robinson has worked on keeping a level head, and the team has followed its leader’s voice despite finding themselves in a deep hole early.
“You don’t win a game in the first half,” said Alexander-Walker. “We knew there was a lot of game left. We just knew we had to stay in there, stick together, and not let the runs or the highs and lows [affect us]. We did a good job staying in the middle.”
Despite holding their emotions in check and focusing on the next possession, the Hokies found themselves down 60-51 with 5:50 left in the game. It was never easy, but due to their defense, Virginia Tech put together a season-defining 13-3 run. Chris Clarke cut to the basket to beat Duke’s zone for a two-handed flush, then got a steal and finished the ball in transition.
The Hokies are the only team in the country this season to beat Virginia, Duke, and North Carolina. Even though the Hokies found themselves down by one with the game on the line, there was a certain calmness of being in these types of situations in big time games. Against Virginia last year, the Hokies rallied from a 12-point halftime discrepancy to tie the game at the regulation buzzer. And at No. 1 Virginia this year, the Hokies trailed by five with under 45 seconds left, but still found a way to get the win. It was, in a way, symbolic that the game came down to another clutch situation and Virginia Tech responded.
“We were all pretty calm; we felt like we had been in similar situations before in the last three years since we’ve all been here,” said Blackshear. “We just wanted to continue bite down, get stops, play well on offense, play with one other, and just get a good look.”
On that final possession, the Hokies moved the ball efficiently and with a sense of purpose. It felt more like a practice session than the waning seconds of an impressive potential upset. There was a certain serenity in how the Hokies reversed the ball, Alexander-Walker pump faked, and ultimately Chris Clarke’s game winner.
“I saw the ball from Nickeil, he shot it, I saw it coming off long,” said Clarke, who scored the final six points for the Hokies. “I felt like I could’ve dunked it but I just knew if I missed it, it would have been bad.”
“He should have dunked it,” added Bibbs.
It was not pretty, but wins over AP Top 5 teams are not sold on Amazon. They are earned, and this team proved that they are as gritty, tough and chock-full of character as any other group in America. And in just over two weeks, they will get a chance to prove it in the big dance.