For a moment, there was life in Cassell Coliseum. Fans looked up at the scoreboard and saw their Virginia Tech Hokies down just 44-40 with 14 minutes and 52 seconds to go in the second half against second-ranked Syracuse. Maybe Syracuse would show some jitters in first ACC road game? Maybe the Hokies would set aside a frustrating non-conference season to score perhaps the biggest upset of the college basketball season?
No. In fact, Virginia Tech didn’t score another point until Syracuse was up by 20 and there was only 6:22 to go, that coming on a dunk by Joey van Zegeren. The Hokies (8-6, 1-1 ACC) never got closer than 18 points behind the rest of the way and in the end, Virginia Tech went down like just about any other team would against Syracuse, 72-52.
But the signs of life will be welcome for Hokies fans. Yes, Virginia Tech won the very first conference game played this season, winning at Miami. Not much is expected of the Hokies this season, however, and no one realistically thought they could win tonight. Being down four in the second half is an encouraging thing for head coach James Johnson to point to, but the Hokies’ inability to stop Syracuse’s decisive 16-0 run over an 8:30 span becomes a teaching point for Johnson.
Early, the Hokies were doing the main thing any team has to do in order to beat Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone and stay in the game — hit three-pointers. Virginia Tech drilled five of them in the first half and trailed by only six points at 35-29. The Hokies were trailing the Orange in rebounding, but not by a large margin.
The second half, specifically the final 14 minutes, were a completely different story. Virginia Tech hit just two three-pointers in the second half, were so out-manned on the glass that Syracuse finished with a 41-25 edge, and the Hokies wound up conceding 17 offensive rebounds to Syracuse.
The Hokies shot just 36.7 percent from the field and were a dismal 7-for-24 (29.2 percent) from three-point range. In short, Virginia Tech put up the kinds of numbers you would expect them to put up against a great team like Syracuse. C.J. Barksdale was the only Hokies player in double figures with 12 points. Normal top scoring threat Jarell Eddie finished with just six points on 2-for-9 shooting and didn’t manage to get to the free-throw line even once.
But that moment when Tech was down just four, where the Hokies were playing above their heads and giving Syracuse a scare offers Johnson at least a short glimpse of the potential his team has. It may not translate to many wins in the conference this season and it may seem to odd to say it after a 20-point loss, but the Hokies probably learned a valuable lesson tonight about competing for 40 minutes Tuesday night and it will serve them well as the ACC season continues.