The Virginia Tech Hokies hit the road for the first time in two weeks to face the Clemson Tigers on Sunday night in newly-renovated Littlejohn Coliseum. After being beaten quite handily in their first two ACC road contests, the Hokies were able to withstand an aerial assault to knock off the Tigers 82-81. With the win, the Hokies improved to 15-4 on the season (4-3 ACC), and earned what currently stands as their third RPI Top-50 win this season.
Despite their surprisingly impressive tournament resume, the Tigers entered Sunday night's game winless in 2017. Clemson's standout forward Jaron Blossomgame, who averages just over 18 points per game, reportedly missed practice in the days leading up to Sunday with a sprained thumb on his shooting hand, but took part in shootaround and was in the starting lineup to face the Hokies.
Whether it was his thumb or a new-found focus from Buzz's bunch, the Hokies kept Blossomgame in check early and avoided yet another slow start against a conference foe.
Tech took advantage of their quickness on the perimeter, using their usual brand of swift ball movement and fluidity to create open looks inside and outside. Seth Allen and Khadim Sy teamed up immediately in the pick-and-roll game, resulting in an easy layup for Sy and then a beautiful skip pass to a wide open Ty Outlaw, who canned a corner three. Justin Robinson was able to penetrate the lane early, resulting in a layup and some good looks for his teammates.
And then there was Zach LeDay. The senior forward had a fantastic first half, displaying his full repertoire of moves against a helpless Sidy Djitte. LeDay reeled off 7 straight points for the Hokies, using some slick post moves against a much bigger opponent.
If there's one thing we've learned during LeDay's time in Blacksburg, it's that his quick first step and willingness to initiate contact with taller foes allow him to create valuable space inside. He combines that with a sneaky perimeter ball fake that is even more effective once he shows his ability to hit a three (which he soon did midway through the first half).
LeDay abused Clemson defenders throughout the first half. Whether it was from the perimeter or the post, he was dangerous every time he squared up. Suddenly, the Tigers began respecting him all over the floor.
But for all of the success the Hokies found on the offensive end, they struggled mightily to contain the Tigers shooters. The Hokies initially set up in a 2-3 zone, but poor rotations and good ball movement from the Tigers led to a lot of easy three-pointers. In an attempt to confuse the Clemson offense, Buzz then began mixing up their defensive looks. The Hokies' 3-2 set struggled to defend the baseline, giving way to a 1-3-1 set that proved similarly ineffective.
The Hokies entered Sunday's game allowing conference opponents to shoot 43% from three-point range, and the Tigers clearly took advantage of the opportunity. Clemson shot 7-13 from distance in the opening period, including a dagger with 4 seconds left in the half to cut the Tech lead at the break to 41-40. To put the Tigers' perimeter game in perspective, they averaged 7.7 made three-pointers per game entering play on Sunday.
The Hokies held Blossomgame to only 4 first half points, but allowed teammates Avry Holmes (12 points) and Donte Grantham (10 points) too many easy looks.
On the flip side, with so many Tigers camped out on the perimeter, the Hokies did a solid job rebounding out of the zone and went into the locker room holding a 17-13 advantage on the boards.
Clearly troubled by the Clemson aerial attack, Buzz had the Hokies in man-to-man to start the second half. And almost immediately, the Hokies struggled on the boards. Clemson pulled down offensive rebounds on their first three possessions, leading to easy put-back layups and three-pointers. By the Under 16 media timeout, the Tigers had already logged 5 offensive rebounds and 7 second-chance points.
There was a palpable shift in energy within Littlejohn Coliseum, and the Tigers barrage had the potential to demoralize the visitors. But the Hokies hung tough, thanks in part to another big performance from Seth Allen.
Sensing the coming Tigers run, Allen put the Hokies on his back the same way Chris Clarke had in recent games. He reeled off 8 straight Hokies points, including two three-pointers, midway through the second half. Allen used his usual bag of tricks along the perimeter to get an easy layup and went back to the pick-and-roll with Sy, only to step back and can an open three.
Both teams traded blows down the stretch; the Hokies would convert an And-1, only to watch the Tigers drop another three on the ensuing possession. It became a back-and-forth game full of periods of open play followed by spans of general ineptitude. The Tigers led by as many as 2 points, before the Hokies went on an 8-0 with just under 8 minutes to play.
Blossomgame got going in the second half, suddenly giving the Tigers a dangerous three-headed monster that Tech struggled to contain. His layup with 4:42 remaining cut the Hokies lead to 1, but that was the closest the Tigers would come.
Tech held Clemson scoreless for the next 3:50, before Blossomgame cut the Hokies lead back down to 2. Coming out of the timeout, Seth Allen hit a huge three-pointer to put the Hokies up 5. The Hokies then went 6-of-6 from the free throw line over the final 21 seconds and escaped Clemson with their first ACC road win this season.
Blossomgame and Holmes led all scorers with 20 points apiece, and Grantham chipped in 15 for the Tigers.
Allen led the Hokies with 17 points and 6 assists. LeDay finished with 16 points and 5 rebounds, and Ahmed Hill added 11 points. The Hokies shot 60.9% from the field in the second half and finished the game 16-17 from the free throw line, including 9-9 in the second half.
Overall, it felt like a good "team win." Buzz got solid contributions from guys like Khadim Sy (5 points, 3 boards) and Ty Outlaw (8 points, 4 boards), in addition to his usual suspects. Chris Clarke (8 points, 6 boards) did not make his usual impact, but he was effective enough while Allen put the team on his back to keep the offense going when Clemson was busy breaking down the Tech defense.
Most importantly, the Hokies shot well from the free throw line. Arguably the most frustrating aspect of the Hokies play this season has been their inconsistency from the charity stripe. On Sunday, their flawless shooting from the line in the final seconds helped close out the Tigers on the road.
Back over .500 in the conference, the Hokies hit the road again on Thursday night when they travel to Chapel Hill to face the #9 North Carolina Tar Heels (18-3, 6-1 ACC). Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.
A Few Odds and Ends
OUTLAW EFFECTIVE IN LIMITED MINUTES: Making his second start this week for the Hokies, Ty Outlaw had a solid game against the Tigers. He went 2-2 from behind the arc and looked significantly more confident than we've seen him in recent weeks. Ty finished with 8 points and 4 rebounds in only 12 minutes of play, serving as an effective weapon early in each half. As I mentioned in last week's Matrix 3.1, Tech's ability to withstand foul trouble and/or poor shooting nights from key players like Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs will dictate how far they can go. Performances from Outlaw that mirror Sunday night's could be the difference between a deep ACC Tournament run and an opening game exit.
DEFENSIVE STRUGGLES: Let's call a spade a spade: Tech's perimeter defense was horrendous on Sunday night. They struggled all evening with their rotations and close outs, spending more time chasing the ball than contesting shots. Sure, the Tigers made a bunch of tough jumpers — including Blossomgame's late three with both of LeDay's hands in his face — but their inability to contain a relatively boorish Clemson offense was troubling.
Earlier in the week, we raved about the Hokies' defensive efforts against Georgia Tech. Against a slightly better offense in Clemson — the Tigers rank 13th in the ACC in field goal percentage (45%) and 14th in three-point percentage (35.4%), while the Bees rank 15th and 13th, respectively — the Hokies allowed 48% shooting from inside and behind the arc thanks to far too many easy looks.
With road games at UNC, Louisville, Virginia and Miami remaining, the Hokies will need to find ways to contain more adept offenses on a nightly basis. Otherwise, a promising season could quickly turn disastrous.