There is a popular old saying when state rivals meet on a college basketball court that you can throw the records out the window. In Blacksburg, Va., on Tuesday night, if No. 14 Virginia and Virginia Tech had tried to do that, they would have hit a wall instead.
In an offensively-challenged game that had the makings of a massive Hokies’ upset, the Cavaliers rallied late to win their 10th straight game 57-53 at Cassell Coliseum. Virginia (22-5, 13-1 ACC) stayed within one game in the loss column of conference-leading and undefeated Syracuse.
But speaking of Syracuse, this win could have ominous overtones for the Cavaliers. As happy as they will be to earn a season sweep of their rival in the Commonwealth, Virginia Tech did things defensively that Virginia is going to see executed on a much higher level when the Cavaliers and Orange meet in Charlottesville on March 1, likely with the ACC regular season championship on the line.
Throughout the first half and for parts of the second, the Hokies frustrated the Cavaliers with a 2-3 zone, and as Virginia missed 3-pointers and turned the ball over while trying to run an offense based on high-post distribution, the imagery of Virginia trying to execute offensively against Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense must have had Cavaliers fans in shivers.
Because Virginia Tech is a bad basketball team and because the Cavaliers got some breaks late, Virginia was able to close the game on a 15-7 run to turn a 46-42 deficit with six minutes, 30 seconds to play into a four-point win. Virginia finally found its 3-point accuracy during the spurt, with Justin Anderson hitting a pair of triples and Joe Harris making another.
That and some late free throws from Malcolm Brogdon (even though the 90-percent shooter missed two in the game) were enough to beat a Hokies team that slipped to 2-11 in the ACC (both wins over Miami) and 9-16 overall. Brogdon led the Cavaliers with 12 points, while London Perrantes added 11. Devin Wilson and Joey Van Zegeren had 13 points each to pace the Hokies.
Tuesday’s home game with Virginia may as well have been Virginia Tech’s national championship game (or state title game, anyway). Virginia didn’t respond to that emotion well early, taking bad shots and making bad passes. As really good teams do, the Cavaliers made enough plays late to sneak out of Blacksburg with a victory and their dignity intact.
And while they will be at home for the main-event matchup against Syracuse, Virginia can’t afford to play as it did on Tuesday, or there will be no late comeback because the top-ranked Orange (25-0, 12-0) will open up a 20-point lead and cruise from there.
As it is, the Cavaliers now enter their biggest homestand in 32 years on a 10-game winning streak, their four-point loss at Duke only a distant memory. Miami (12-13, 3-9) and Notre Dame (14-12, 5-8) come to UVA for games before the clash with Syracuse. On Tuesday, Virginia found an opponent poor enough that it could play poorly, wake up late and sneak away with a win. But if the Cavaliers are going to go into that game with the Orange with a 15-1 record in the conference, the level of play is going to have to increase.
And if they play like they did against Syracuse, the much-anticipated matchup will be nothing but another easy Orange road win.