Miami brought an offense that ranked 59th in the country per KenPom to Blacksburg on Saturday afternoon. Virginia Tech held that unit to 42.9 percent from the floor and 33 points in the second half and 33 points before garbage time.
By then, it was too little, too late.
Just two weeks ago, the Hokies took down the Tar Heels who were a top 10 team at the time. They surrendered just 69 points, outrebounded one of the best teams on the glass, and seemingly fixed a shoddy perimeter defense. After a three game win streak which included two victories on the road, it finally seemed the defense had turned a corner. But the effort on the glass and in one-on-one situations that had presided over the win streak was missing. Miami had 44 points in the first 20 minutes and Virginia Tech could not buy a stop.
Mysterious to many watching the game, Hokies’ big man Kerry Blackshear was pulled with 9:11 left in the first half. He did not reenter until there was just 9:05 remaining in the game. Buzz Williams has harped on effort due the Hokies’ struggles on the defensive end, and Blackshear’s performance in that department was worthy of the bench.
“I just didn’t think he played hard,” Coach Williams explained.
However, while Blackshear suffered the consequences, it was not an individual issue and symbolic of the team’s mindset during the game.
“I didn’t think collectively we played hard enough,” Buzz continued. “We don’t have a margin to overcome a lack of toughness, lack of playing hard,” later mentioning that PJ Horne’s intensity was much better.
It has been the same issue plaguing the Hokies from reaching their potential in a tough conference. Virginia Tech was not a great defensive team by many metrics the past two years, but effort was never in question. Now it is, and that is not exactly a comforting sign. Sometimes, the Hokies are not even able to avoid giving up the easiest of baskets. Miami’s DJ Vasiljevic scored six early points, all of direct drives to the basket with little resistance.
“We gave up a lot of open lanes and straight-line drives in the first half and kind of towards the second half at the end,” point guard Justin Robinson said.
There were at least three instances where the shot clock was expiring while the Hokies seemingly locked down Miami’s plan on offense, but in those waning seconds the ‘Canes were able to create something from nothing. Whether it was a half-hearted contest or a mental lapse, Virginia Tech fell victim to the pattern too many times to come out victorious. Trailing 66-63 with just over three minutes left, Lonnie Walker IV hit two clutch jumpers with the clock winding down which ultimately sealed the win for Miami. It is hard to fault the Hokies, who actually defended those shots fairly well, but better teams tend to thrive in those situational moments.
This game is in the history books, but there are concerns in the future with this team’s ability to complete comebacks and finish games. In football, it is hard to build and maintain leads without a solid running game and defense. The same concept applies on the hardwood – without the ability to lock in defensively, teams tend to make comebacks. We saw it Wednesday in Chestnut Hill, and the Hokies could not get the crucial stop against Miami.
“We’ve made a lot of games closer than they should have been,” Robinson said.
The Hokies have 8 games remaining on the conference schedule, just over a month away from Selection Sunday. Those eight teams have a combined 55-24. In other words, it gets much tougher, with trips to Duke and Virginia on the horizon. Right now, the Hokies’ tournament hopes are not looking good and this team cannot afford to come out flat like they did on Saturday with a prime opportunity to add a good win to their résumé.