Hokies Out-Hustle Wake Forest to a 76-70 Victory

The Virginia Tech men’s basketball team has had a lot to overcome this season and has fallen just short in many close games. They had a little more to overcome on Saturday afternoon, playing without both starting post players, Coleman Collins and Deron Washington. Despite this setback, and with no one giving them much of a chance, they went into Lawrence Joel Coliseum and defeated the Wake Forest Demon Deacons 76-70 on Saturday afternoon.

Collins and Washington combine for 27.5 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, so things didn’t look good for the Hokies heading into the contest. But shortly before tip-off it was announced that Wake Forest guard Justin Gray, who averages 19.6 points per game, would miss the game with an illness. Still, with only two interior players available for the game in Cheick Diakite and Chris Tucker, it was expected that outstanding Wake Forest center Eric Williams would take over the game.

Virginia Tech used a box-and-1 defense for part of the first half, and a number of different players in the second half to check Williams, who finished with just 12 points and five rebounds. Wynton Witherspoon, A.D. Vassallo, Cheick Diakite and Chris Tucker were all used to guard Williams, and all gave up a lot of size, but they did a phenomenal job.

Of course it’s hard to use the word phenomenal without mentioning the play of A.D. Vassallo. Vassallo, a freshman small forward from Puerto Rico, had played only 22 minutes total against ACC opponents this season. With Washington and Collins out, as well as Shawn Harris, he got the start against the Demon Deacons and absolutely exploded. Vassallo finished with a career high in points and rebounds, scoring 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He was all over the court on defense as well, recording a team-high four steals. He played 37 minutes and did not commit a turnover.

It was an amazing performance by Vassallo, and quite frankly one that nobody saw coming. He was averaging just 4.2 points and 1.3 rebounds per game heading into the contest. Known as a big-time shooter coming out of Hargrave Military Academy, he had been struggling with his shot for most of the season. But with extended playing time he got an opportunity to find his range, and he shot 11-of-19 from the field and 4-of-5 from three-point range.

But Vassallo’s performance wasn’t the only special performance of the day for the Hokies. Jamon Gordon, playing on a sprained ankle he suffered last Saturday against Maryland, took over the game in the second half. He had just two points and three rebounds at halftime, but in the second half he could not be stopped. Gordon finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds, including eight offensive rebounds. That’s an amazing statistic for a 6-3 combo guard.

Many of Gordon’s points came after his own misses. At one point, he stepped to the line for two free throw attempts and missed both, but hustled to the baseline to get the rebound. On many other occasions Gordon simply outfought some bigger Wake Forest players for the basketball. It was a big-time performance from the heart-and-soul of the Virginia Tech basketball team.

Gordon’s rebounding performance set the tone for Virginia Tech. The Hokies were way over their heads coming into the game on the inside. Wake Forest was the #1 rebounding team in the ACC, while the Hokies ranked dead last in that important category. But VT hustled and muscled their way to a 40-34 advantage on the boards. They grabbed a total of 19 offensive rebounds during the game. Chris Tucker, who played a great game defensively against Eric Williams, also had seven rebounds.

The Hokies were competitive from the opening whistle in this game. Tech jumped out to a quick four-point lead, and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser called a quick timeout after Cheick Diakite’s 15 foot jumper put the Hokies up 4-0. Wake Forest rallied, taking a one-point lead after a three-pointer from Michael Drum made the score 8-7 at the 15:43 mark.

The Hokies withstood a three-point barrage from Drum, a walk-on, in the first half. He hit four threes in the first half and had 14 points at halftime against Tech’s box-and-1 defense. He cooled off in the second half and finished the game with 17 points.

The Hokies rallied briefly and took one more lead in the first half. Zabian Dowdell hit a three-pointer from the top of the key with 8:57 left in the first half to give Tech a 24-21 lead. Wake Forest freshman guard Harvey Hale answered Dowdell’s shot with a three-pointer of his own to tie the game at 24. Wake then took the lead 26-24 on a jumper by Eric Williams.

They extended that lead to as many as six points as the first half winded down. A.D. Vassallo hit a three-pointer from the wing to cut the lead to 38-35 with a minute left before halftime. Neither team could score again in the first half, and Wake Forest took a three point lead into halftime.

Wake Forest came out on fire to start the second half. The Demon Deacons hit their first seven shots from the field over the first 6:39 of the second half and led 56-45 with 13:21 to go in the game. They led by as many as 12 points during that stretch, and things weren’t looking good for the Hokies, who found themselves down by double-digits on the road with no frontcourt depth.

But that didn’t deter Virginia Tech. Instead they unleashed Gordon and Vassallo on the Demon Deacons and began to play tougher on defense. Gordon started the run with a jumper to cut the lead to 56-47. Chris Tucker would hit one of two free throws shortly thereafter to cut the lead to eight points. At the 10:48 mark Gordon found Vassallo open for a three-pointer that cut the lead to 56-51. Tech was cutting into the lead, and they weren’t finished.

Vassallo followed up his three-pointer with a layup to make it a three-point game, and then Jamon Gordon hit two free throws to make the score 56-55 with 9:18 remaining. Less than a minute later, Gordon missed a layup, got his own rebound over the bigger Wake Forest players, and scored to put Virginia Tech up by one. Gordon’s basket capped a 12-0 Virginia Tech run. Wake’s Trent Strickland, who scored a team-high 23 points, finally got the Deacons back on the scoreboard with a three-pointer to give Wake a 59-57 lead.

But Jamon Gordon wasn’t finished. On Tech’s next possession, the junior guard from Jacksonville hit a three-pointer of his own to put the Hokies back up 60-59 at the 7:51 mark. Back the Deacons came, as Eric Williams was fouled as he hit a layup on the ensuing possession. He hit the free throw to give Wake Forest a 62-60 lead, but his three-pointer was answered by A.D. Vassallo to put Tech back up 63-62.

Wake Forest tried to rally once again when Strickland hit another three-pointer with 5:26 left to put the Demon Deacons up 65-62. But the Hokies would have none of it. A.D. Vassallo hit a jumper to tie the game at 65, and then Jamon Gordon recorded a steal and found Wynton Witherspoon open for an easy layup. Vassallo hit another jumper on Tech’s next possession, and the Hokies led 69-65 with 3:16 remaining in the game.

An Eric Williams layup cut the lead to two points, but Zabian Dowdell answered with a running layup to put the Hokies up 71-67. It was Dowdell’s only basket of the second half, and he finished with 11 points. Williams scored three more points for Wake Forest down the stretch, but it was not enough. Jamon Gordon and A.D Vassallo iced the game at the free-throw line as time ran out, and the Hokies held on for a 76-70 victory.

Tech dressed just six scholarship players for the game, but managed to snap their five-game losing streak and pick up their first ACC victory of the season. Virginia Tech improves to 11-9 on the season, with a 1-6 ACC record. Wake Forest drops to 12-8 and 1-6 in ACC play.

The Hokies will return to action on Tuesday night when they host Georgia Tech. Tip-off is scheduled for 7pm and the game will be televised by RSN. Check your local listings.