#5 seed Virginia Tech scored the last 12 points of the game to knock off #12 seed Illinois 54-52 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday night in Columbus, Ohio. Down 52-42 with 4:27 to go, the Hokies shut down the Illini from then on, and Deron Washington led the charge by scoring eight points down the stretch, including the game winner with 45.5 seconds left.
Washington’s outburst included two three pointers, as he went 3-of-3 from beyond the arc for the game and led Tech with 14 points. The Hokies fought back from the 52-42 deficit to close it to 52-51 with 1:24 remaining on a free throw by Jamon Gordon. After Illinois forward Warren Carter missed a jumper on the other end, Washington took a pass on the left wing, slashed across the middle, and banked in the game winner from the free throw line with 45.5 seconds left.
At the other end, Carter tried a short turnaround jump shot from the left and missed it with 27 seconds left. Television replays showed Washington slapping Carter on the wrist and knocking the ball loose as Carter went up, but Washington wasn’t called for the foul, and Carter grabbed the ball and still managed to get off the shot. It missed, and Illinois center Shawn Pruitt rebounded the ball. Under heavy pressure, Pruitt missed a layup attempt badly, and Tech’s A.D. Vassallo, who led the Hokies with nine rebounds, pulled down the defensive board and was fouled with 23 seconds left.
Vassallo made one of two for a 54-52 Hokie lead, and on the other end, Brian Randle of Illinois missed a three-pointer. In the scramble that ensued for the rebound, Randle grabbed it and was undercut by Washington, who was whistled for the foul with four seconds left. Randle went to the line and missed the front end of the one-and-one, and again a mad scramble ensued for the ball. Randle would up lying on his stomach with the ball between his legs, and when Tech’s Coleman Collins grabbed it, the referees called a held ball and awarded possession to Tech with 0.1 seconds left. The Hokies threw the ball in bounds, and when the horn sounded, the celebration ensued.
The rally ended a frustrating night for the Hokies, who were outplayed most of the game. Illinois’ slowdown tempo and great defense forced the Hokies into a bad night in the half court offense. At first, there was some pace to the game, and Tech held a 14-13 lead with 12:27 to go in the first half. Behind Rich McBride, who hit three 3-pointers in the first half, Illinois went on a 16-5 run and led 29-19 late in the half. Tech’s Zabian Dowdell hit a jumper with 59 seconds left, and the half ended 29-21, Illini. The 21 points tied Tech’s lowest total for a half this season. The Hokies last scored 21 points in the first half in a loss to Marshall in late December.
The Hokies cut the deficit to 29-25 early in the second half, and then the Illini went on another run. Over an eleven minute stretch, Illinois outscored Tech 18-9, taking a 47-34 lead on a free throw by Randle with 8:18 left.
Jamon Gordon hit a free throw, followed by Coleman Collins with two free throws with 7:39 left to cut the lead to 47-37. At that point, the Hokies decided to start pressing Illinois. Facing full-court pressure, the Illini collapsed, making just two field goals for the rest of the game and turning the ball over six times.
Jamon Gordon and Deron Washington led the charge to victory. Over the last 7:39, Gordon had five points, three steals, and two assists. Washington scored eight points in the same span, including two three-pointers. Washington came into the game hitting just 27.1% of his three-pointers on the season, but he got hot down the stretch when Tech needed him the most.
After Illinois hit a free throw to go up 48-37 with 7:04 left, Gordon stole the ball, drove the to the basket, and was fouled, where he hit two free throws to make it 48-39. Washington followed with one of two free throws to make it 48-40 with 6:09 left.
On their next trip down the floor, Illinois worked the shot clock and got the ball to Carter, who hit a wild turnaround shot from 10 feet out as the shot clock sounded, putting Illinois up 50-40 with 5:33 remaining.
The shot could have been a back-breaker, but Gordon responded with a layup on the other end to make it 50-42, 5:09 left. Fouled on the play, Gordon missed the free throw, but he made up for it at the defensive end by stealing an errant pass by Carter. Vassallo missed a wide-open three pointer from the baseline, and Brian Randle got the rebound. Randle cleared the ball and started upcourt, only to be tripped inadvertently by Washington. The referees called an intentional foul on Washington with 4:37 left, awarding two free throws and possession to Illinois.
The call was a potential disaster for the Hokies, but Randle accommodated the Hokies by missing both free throws. On the inbounds, Randle got open underneath and hit a layup for a 52-42 lead with 4:27 left.
The Hokies’ comeback then began in earnest. Washington started it by swishing a three-pointer from the top of the key to make it 52-45 with 4:18 left. Gordon got a steal and missed a layup, and on the other end, Washington blocked a shot by Trent Meachum. Coleman Collins hit two free throws to make it 52-47 with 3:19 left. After a missed three-pointer by McBride, the Hokies got another three-pointer from Washington, this one a contested shot from the right wing that got the Hokies to within two points, 52-50, with 2:25 to go.
Illinois got two cracks at the basket on the other end but missed them both, and Tech called a timeout with 1:28 to go after a rebound by Vassallo. Gordon was fouled with 1:24 remaining and hit just one of two to make it 52-51, setting the table for Washington’s game-winner with 45.5 seconds left and the frantic action that ensued.
With the comeback, the Hokies avoided a frustrating and bitter end to a fine season. Zabian Dowdell scored just eight points for Tech, including a scoreless second half. Vassallo rebounded well, but he shot poorly, finishing with nine points while going 3-of-11 from the field. Coleman Collins finished with 13 points, just his second double-figure game in the last 12 outings, and he shot 9-of-12 from the free throw line. But Collins also missed two dunks. Washington had just six points in the game until his heroics down the stretch.
As a team, Virginia Tech shot 15-of-42 (35.7%) for the game, but that included a 7-of-24 (29.2%) first half performance, and the Hokies’ shooting percentage hovered around 30% for most of the night. Illinois, by contrast, shot close to 50% for much of the game before going cold late in the face of the Hokie press. The Illini finished 19-of-45 (42.2%) for the game.
Turnovers and free throw shooting kept the Hokies in the game. Illinois had 21 turnovers and made just 8-of-15 free throws (53.3%). The Hokies turned the ball over just nine times and made 18-of-28 from the line (64.3%). Virginia Tech was crushed on the boards, 37-22, and most other statistics were even. The ten-point advantage from the free throw line, Washington’s clutch shooting, and Gordon’s defense down the stretch were the keys for the Hokie win.
Virginia Tech goes to 22-11 on the year with the win, while Illinois falls to 23-12 and is eliminated. The Hokies will take a day of rest today and will go up against #4 seed Southern Illinois for a chance to make the Sweet 16. Game time is set for 2:40 pm Sunday and will be televised by CBS.