Following the Hokies' season-opening stumble at the hands of Alabama State, head coach Buzz Williams channeled his inner Friday Night Lights and held two-a-day practices leading up to Wednesday's matchup with Jacksonville State.
Asked if the intensity level was raised in the wake of the Hokies' setback to the Hornets, junior forward Zach Leday countered with a question of his own.
"Man, is that a question? Oh my god. It's been crazy," laughed LeDay.
Those crazy practices — paired with a dominant performance on the boards — propelled the Hokies to a 71-62 victory over the visiting Gamecocks.
The Hokies outrebounded Jacksonville State 54-29 and limited the guard-heavy offense to 37.5% shooting from the field. While Williams wasn't fully satisfied with his team's performance on the defensive end, he was pleased to see more effort on display after a showing against Alabama State that he called "disheartening."
"To see so many people here for Game 1, for the things that we want our program to be about, and the things our institution was built on, for us to have the effort that we had, that was just so disheartening to me," said Williams. "I thought the things we wanna be about were much more evident tonight. We're a loss down and four days late, but maybe we can manufacture it for a longer period of time and get some of those people back."
The Hokies were once again led by Zach LeDay, a South Florida transfer who took full advantage of being matched up with a guard for the second straight game. LeDay, who at 15 points and 9 rebounds came up just one board short of his second consecutive double-double, has been the linchpin of the Hokies on both ends of the floor.
"I think Zach has been good...I don't know that 26 (points) and 15 (rebounds) is who he is. I don't know that 15 (points) and 9 (rebounds) is who he is. But I know what his heart is," said Williams. "Through two games, our team definitely depends on his heart and on his toughness. A lot of what he does as it relates to those numbers, it's just based on effort. It's just based on the edge that he plays with."
Chris Clarke impressed once again despite appearing out of control at times with the ball in his hands. Clarke will have to settle down on the offensive end to limit his turnovers, but Williams knows the future is bright for his heralded freshman.
"I think he's hard to guard when he doesn't over-dribble," said Williams. "I think he'll figure out sooner rather than later the more you over-dribble, the higher probability is you're gonna turn the ball over. But he's gonna get fouled. And he's gonna go to the glass."
Seth Allen, considered by many the Hokies' best player entering the season, had a second straight forgettable night marked by head-scratching turnovers and questionable shot selection. Despite a rocky start to the season, Williams hasn't lost any confidence in the Maryland transfer.
"He's as polished of a kid as I've ever coached in many respects...His feel for the game is as high as any player that I've coached. It's Jae Crowder, it's Wesley Matthews, it's Jimmy Butler-esque," said Williams. "...He really cares. He's really excited to be at Tech. He's really excited to finally be eligible. Is he pressing? I think he's pressing in that he's trying to overdo things offensively...He wants to be really good all the time. He wasn't good tonight. He wasn't good on Saturday. But I will never bet against him."
With Allen playing just 21 minutes, Justin Robinson got 27 minutes of action and ran the team effectively. Robinson led the Hokies with nine free throw attempts, a sign that Robinson should be able to create shots of his own late in the shot clock by slashing to the rim.
Johnny Hamilton and Kerry Blackshear each had productive nights, but returning sophomore center Satchel Pierce did not play. Devin Wilson remains sidelined with a strained adductor, and Williams does not expect to get the junior point guard back on the practice floor this week.
The Hokies traded the lead back and forth throughout the first half but managed to enter the break with a 38-33 lead, a positive given that Jacksonville State benefited from four fast break layups off of live-ball turnovers and two three pointers on possessions that should have resulted in turnovers of their own.
The Hokies jumped out to a ten point lead early in the second half, but the Gamecocks battled back and cut the Hokies' lead to three with 2:40 remaining. The Hokies answered with buckets from LeDay and Blackshear, and the defense buckled down and got enough stops to seal the victory.
By no means was it a perfect showing — the Hokies shot 50% (15-30) from the free throw line and limped to a 25% (4-16) mark from behind the arc. But negatives aside, Williams was happy to see his team answer the bell after a gut-check season opener.
"I thought we were all back on the same page today," said Williams. "...They really didn't have a choice but to respond. And they did."