Pittsburgh, PA – In a close, hard-fought NCAA Tournament matchup, ninth-seeded Alabama torched eighth-seeded Virginia Tech’s defense for 60 percent shooting from the field, and the Crimson Tide beat a Hokies team bedeviled by foul trouble, 86-83.
Collin Sexton gets all the publicity for the Tide, and he led Alabama with 25 points. But the real story for Alabama was fellow freshman guard John Petty, who made 6-of-8 three pointers and finished with 20 points. The Hokies could have withstood Sexton’s scoring output, some of which came from the free throw line (where he was 10-of-14) in the last minute as the Hokies fouled and played catchup. But Petty, a 10.1 points per game scorer and 36.2% three-point shooter coming in, was too much for Tech to overcome.
“He’s so long, and can really, really shoot,” Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams said afterwards of Petty. “Obviously, he’s a high-level specialist as a shooter.”
It was the first time Virginia Tech had given up more than 75 points since losing to Miami back on February 3, 84-75.
Virginia Tech was led by their guards and wings. Justin Robinson (19 points), Justin Bibbs (17 points) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (15 points) combined for 51 of Tech’s 83 points, shooting 17-of-32 from the field and 7-of-16 from three-point range. For a time, they were able to match Alabama’s hot shooting, particularly early in the game. But after shooting 68 percent in the first half, the Hokies fell to 44.8 percent in the second half and couldn’t hold on to a two-point halftime lead.
Alabama shot consistently all game long, making 59.3 percent in the first half and 60.9 percent in the second half. This was Virginia Tech’s third straight loss after leading at half, after starting the season 18-1 in such games.
Virginia Tech guard Devin Wilson, playing close to home in the final game of his college career, said of Alabama’s potent offensive night, “They got a couple open looks, whether from us slipping or bad communication. They got a lot of looks, and down the stretch got open shots. Hats off to them, they played really well tonight.”
Buzz Williams added, “I thought too oftentimes our first line of defense on the help side didn’t do their job, and now the ball’s going downhill to our second line. And then we’re in rotation too often.”
The Hokies also struggled defensively on the interior, giving up eight dunks to Alabama, most of them in the half-court offense. The Tide’s Donta Hall, who was questionable before the game due to a concussion suffered in the SEC Tournament, returned to score ten points, all of them on dunks. He was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field.
Part of Virginia Tech’s difficulty on defense came due to foul trouble for Kerry Blackshear, who fouled out in just 18 minutes of play. Blackshear picked up two fouls in the first 5:31 of the game and sat for most of the first half, playing just six minutes before intermission. He played most of the early part of the second half and fared well, but then committed his last two fouls in a span of one minute and 20 seconds. Blackshear finished with eight points and just two rebounds.
Virginia Tech was able to overcome the early absence of Blackshear by torching the nets for 68 percent shooting in the first half, including 7-of-9 from three-point range, and the Hokies led 43-41 at the break. Bibbs was perfect in the first half, scoring 11 points and making all four of his shots, including three from behind the arc. But in the second half, he was only 2-of-8 from the field.
The game was back and forth, with neither team leading by more than five points for most of the game. Ten ties occurred from the start of the game until 8:28 remained, when Sexton hit a jumper to knot it at 63. That started a 9-1 run that put the Tide up 70-64 with 5:10 to go, and Alabama started to smell the win. Blackshear fouled out 18 seconds before Sexton’s shot, and the Hokies battled back to within two points on two different occasions, 70-68 and 72-70 with 2:47 left.
But then two things did the Hokies in:
- With 2:08 left, Petty hit the last of his six three-pointers to put the Tide up 75-70.
- With Alabama leading 78-74, Justin Robinson stole an inbounds pass. With 48 seconds left, he drove into the lane and scored, but he was called for a charging foul.
Not only was the basket waved off, but it was Robinson’s fifth foul. Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams turned and smacked his towel on the scorer’s table and was called immediately for a technical foul.
“I shouldn’t have had the towel in my hand,” Williams said of the technical. “I think that made it look worse. I thought it was a block [on Alabama]. John Cal, who I’ve known forever, was at the game. He told me later it was a charge. So he said it was the right call.”
Sexton made one of the resulting free throws, putting Alabama up 79-74, and the rest of the game was an Alabama parade to the free throw line. The Hokies never got closer than four points the rest of the way, until a tip-in by Tyrie Jackson at the final buzzer made it 86-83.
Blackshear and Robinson were joined in fouling out by Wabissa Bede, who played ten minutes and scored nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, but who also racked up five fouls. For the game, Virginia Tech was called for 22 fouls to 18 for Alabama, but five of Tech’s fouls came after Robinson fouled out with 48 seconds to go.
There was no single statistic where Alabama dominated Virginia Tech. Most of the team stats were close, including rebounds (26-22 in favor of the Tide), offensive rebounds (10-10), second chance points (10-9 Alabama), fastbreak points (11-8 Alabama) and turnovers (17-14 in Tech’s favor). Ultimately, it was Petty’s shooting, Virginia Tech’s relatively cool second-half shooting, and the concentration of fouls for Blackshear and Justin Robinson (who still managed to play 31 minutes) that did Virginia Tech in.
This was close, as 8-9 games should be. Virginia Tech just came up on the short end.
“I thought tonight was a great game,” Buzz Williams said, “and it just didn’t come out on the end we wanted it to.”
The game closes out the careers of Justin Bibbs and Devin Wilson (23 minutes, zero points and just one rebound). At one point in post-game interviews, Bibbs broke down and couldn’t answer a question, and Wilson had to answer it for him.
“It’s hard to answer these questions amidst all the emotion,” Williams said of his two seniors, “but the journey that those two guys have been on, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to repay them, as far as how hard they’ve worked and how they’ve represented our program, on and off the floor.”
The loss is a bitter pill. All NCAA Tournament losses are. Buzz Williams has taken Virginia Tech to two straight NCAA Tournaments, and with nearly all of his roster returning next season, he has the Hokies on track for an unprecedented three-straight NCAA bids.
“Getting here is incredibly hard, and we’re thankful for that, and we are striving to continue to get better,” Williams said. “But the higher you go, the altitude changes. It’s harder to breathe.”
Williams acknowledges that starting to win NCAA games is the “the next step we have to take.”
That will have to wait at least one more year, though.
“The body of work that we’ve accomplished since we’ve been here,” Devin Wilson said, “you can hold your head high to that and focus on that. Other than that, it’s not the best feeling in the world.”