Virginia Tech basketball is in the middle of reinventing itself. Long gone are the days when the Hokies emphasized offense and running the floor as fast as possible. Instead, Tech is making defense their focus, and that focus helped the Hokies knock off No. 15 Clemson on Wednesday night, 65-58.
The Hokies shot just 34.5 percent from the field, but held Clemson to just 38.6 percent shooting and forced the Tigers into 11 turnovers on their way to the win. The victory gives Virginia Tech their ninth ACC win of the season.
“I say it often, and my heart is scarred by this in such a good way, that it will change the way I coach the rest of my career, however long that is,” head coach Buzz Williams said of the team’s change. “These guys have accepted the change. That’s hard to do at this level. That’s hard to do with teenagers. That’s hard to do with guys who already have very distinct roles established, many of which have had a role similar to what they’ve had for a long period of time.”
The 11 turnovers by Clemson turned into 17 points for the Hokies, which proved critical as both Tech and Clemson failed to find a rhythm offensively. Clemson’s Marcquise Reed scored a game-high 28 points but took 24 shot attempts to get there. Reed hit eight threes by himself in 20 attempts, but the other Tigers combined to make just three three-pointers.
Virginia Tech’s defensive effort ignited the run that put Clemson away. Virginia Tech embarked on a 25-7 run in the second half and took their largest lead of the game with 2:33 left to play, turning a 38-34 deficit into a 59-45 lead. In that run, Virginia Tech got points from almost all their bench players, including Chris Clarke, Tyrie Jackson and Ahmed Hill. In all, Virginia Tech got 19 points from their reserves, while Clemson’s bench failed to score.
“I think it’s very encouraging,” Williams said. “I’m very happy for those guys that you mentioned specifically. I think there’s — I don’t know if residual fits what I’m trying to say — it’s not only good for those guys, but it’s good for those guys that you didn’t mention, because those guys are able to get a drink of water on the bench, and it’s not completely disintegrating.”
Freshman PJ Horne received plenty of praise after the game, as he impressed his teammates with his effort on both ends of the floor. Horne finished the night with nine points and three rebounds, and played 15 minutes in place of Kerry Blackshear Jr.
“He had some energy,” said Justin Robinson, who finished with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists. “He knew that he could bang down low with Elijah (Thomas) because I told him before the game, Elijah’s going to get frustrated if you bang with him. So I think he did that. Came in, ran the floor and got some easy, open looks.”
Since Virginia Tech’s home loss to Miami on Feb. 3, the Hokies are 4-1 with wins over two ranked teams. It all goes back to the Hokies’ focus on defense, which has been spurred by Devin Wilson’s insertion into the starting lineup. The fifth-year senior is known as one of the team’s best defenders, and his performance in recent games has fortified Virginia Tech’s defense.
“I wouldn’t say it’s me. I think it’s a collective effort, that everyone is just buying in,” said Wilson, who scored eight points and dished two assists. “We have 12, 13 guys that we have. When everyone buys in, it’s a lot easier to produce on the defensive end. Now, it’s five guys against one guy who has the ball. When we play like that, it’s amazing. You can see it on film, you can see it in the crowd.”
After the game, Williams credited Wilson and the rest of the team for their ability to remake themselves midway through the season.
“We’re forcing teams that are incredibly well-coached into late, contested threes,” Williams said. “Our turnover rate, defensively, has went through the roof. And the paradox is that we value the ball more. We value the ball better.”
Virginia Tech’s overall record now stands at 20-8, and the Hokies are 9-6 in the ACC. Defeating Clemson gives Tech another Quadrant One victory, inching the Hokies closer to their second-straight NCAA Tournament bid. But with Louisville (18-10, 8-7 after an 82-56 loss at Duke) on the horizon this Saturday at 1 p.m. (CBS), Williams is doing his best to focus on getting his team ready to play their second game in four days.
“Yeah, it sounds like such a coach and in many respects, I try to stay away from that every day. We are not trying to think about anything other than the next 24 hours,” Williams said. “And honestly, (Robinson) helped me with that maybe 12-14 days ago. Just being consumed with today. We’ve got a lot to do prior to Saturday at 1, but how we manage the next 24 hours emotionally, physically, mentally, that’s going to impact Saturday.”