BUFFALO, N.Y. – Five times Thursday night, the Virginia Tech Hokies knocked on the door.
Each time, though, the Wisconsin Badgers were there to turn them away. Thus, a season of defying expectations came to an end for the Hokies in an 84-74 loss to the Badgers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Nobody can say the Hokies didn’t have their chances inside KeyBank Center. Although Wisconsin led the entire second half, Virginia Tech trimmed the deficit to just one point five different times. With several chances to either take the lead, or tie the game when they trailed by two or three, however, they were unable to make it happen.
“Obviously it’s emotional any time you come to the end,” coach Buzz Williams said. “Our last game, postgame locker room, this is my 10th year as a head coach – it’s always been the same. The one thing that I said different tonight than I said last year … is, as emotional as you are, it’s important that you go back to the hotel, and write down all of the things that you learned.
“There’s a lot to learn from all of this and you have to dissect it the right way.”
Bronson Koenig’s hot shooting is a big reason why the Hokies are left to reflect. The Wisconsin senior hit a school-record eight three-pointers as part of 28 points, while Nigel Hayes added 16 for the eighth-seeded Badgers (26-9). Wisconsin is the only team in the country to advance to the Sweet 16 the past three years, but almost had that streak ended Thursday to the underdog Hokies.
Virginia Tech’s depth, experience and size were all disadvantages. With just a seven-man rotation, any sort of injury severely tests Williams’ lineup. The Hokies found that out when senior leader Seth Allen came out of the game with 13:45 left in the first half. He went into the tunnel and later sat on the bench while trainers looked at his right foot. Williams said after the game Allen is dealing with “really bad turf toe.”
Allen missed 8 minutes of game time, saying afterward “I kind of got beat up a little bit, but I was good in the second half.”
He gutted through his injury to finish with 10 points and a game-high six assists, but clearly wasn’t himself, going just 3 of 10 from the floor, including 1 of 5 from three-point range.
Virginia Tech (22-11), which made its first appearance in the tournament since 2007, trailed at halftime, 34-30. The deficit ballooned to seven points early in the second half, but the Hokies wouldn’t go away.
Redshirt junior Ty Outlaw, who played all 40 minutes for the first time in his career, hit a three-pointer to cut the deficit to 39-35. Outlaw, who missed all of last season because of a heart condition, finished with 16 points and seven rebounds.
Virginia Tech shot 46.9 percent from the field (23 of 49), 41.2 percent from three-point range (7 of 17) and 80.8 percent from the free-throw line (21 of 26), percentages that would have looked even better if not for some late, desperation misses.
“We went out there, we fought as hard as we could,” said senior Zach LeDay, who scored a team-high 23 points before fouling out with just over 20 seconds remaining. “I guess at the end of the day, they made more winning plays than us, but we’re going to have pride no matter what. We went out there and played as hard as we could and gave it our all. We just came up short.”
Virginia Tech trailed, 74-73, after a pair of free throws from LeDay with 2:25 remaining. Hayes, however, made a traditional three-point play at the other end, then Allen missed a three-pointer. Wisconsin center Ethan Happ then cleaned up a miss for a layup and Wisconsin went up, 79-73.
“I just know I had a couple opportunities,” LeDay said about being unable to tie the game, or pull ahead in the second half. “I’ve got to be better as a leader and make them shots. … We weren’t really thinking about the score. I know I wasn’t looking at the score for a second. I was just out there playing as hard as I could for my teammates.”
After LeDay fouled out, Allen greeted him with a hug before he went to the bench.
“Zach’s like my brother,” Allen said. “We came in together and this is the last game we play together in college, so I just wanted to tell him I love him.”