It took a sluggish first half to get the wheels turning, but No. 22 Virginia Tech got back to their winning ways on Wednesday night. The Hokies knocked off Georgia Tech 76-68 and moved to 19-5 (8-4) on the season.
Even with a fast start courtesy of Ty "Trey" Outlaw (9 points in 1:35), after the opening 20 minutes Buzzketball looked dangerously close to losing a third straight game. A Tech offense that was humming along in the first 5 minutes came to a screeching halt over the final 4-and-change. A lack of offense and lackadaisical defense conjured flashbacks of how the Hokies had played since Justin Robinson went down with a foot injury. The Yellow Jackets headed into the locker room on a 14-0 run, a 30-27 lead, and all the momentum.
"That last stretch of the first half, it seemed like we got in a rut offensively," explained Kerry Blackshear Jr. "We were just getting lazy down on the defensive side of the floor and they [Georgia Tech] took advantage of it. ... The message at halftime was to go out and to compartmentalize that stretch, and just to move on from it."
And Virginia Tech did just that. The Hokies scored 49 points following the intermission, only three points shy of their total Atlanta output back in January. Outlaw, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Blackshear led the charge. Outlaw and Alexander-Walker scored 20 and 16 points respectively, while Blackshear not only contributed 16 points but also dished out a career high 8 assists. However, none of those players were the MVP. That title would fall to freshman Isaiah Wilkins.
"Yeah, that was easily one of his better games," Blackshear said while smiling. "He's almost, like, growing up right in front of our eyes. I think it's important that he's getting chances to go up against the old guys like me in practice. He's definitely getting better as we keep going through the schedule."
Wilkins is the second-youngest player in Division 1 basketball this season, according to Buzz Williams. Against Georgia Tech, Wilkins scored nine points while grabbing six rebounds. It's not a jaw dropping stat line, but given the circumstances, it should turn heads. Wilkins has gone from not being committed to a school three months before the season to playing 28 minutes in a very important ACC game for a nationally ranked basketball team.
"This is my 25th year as a college coach and Wilkins is the only player from high school that I've ever signed that didn't attend summer school," explained Williams. "The recruiting story is much abbreviated. At that time he didn't come on an official visit, we didn't write him letters, or go see him. I told him that we would give him a scholarship and that he would redshirt. Obviously, that has dramatically changed in ACC game twelve. I thought in many respects he was the difference in winning and losing. I thought he had four or five possession-saving plays in addition to the four offensive rebounds. I think he is carrying a burden so heavy that he doesn't even really know. Partly because he is so young to what has happened. I do think through all of that his character and his work ethic has matured."
One of the most impressive aspects of Wilkins' performance won't show up on the stat sheet either. That's what Williams described as 'possession saving plays'. An instance that immediately comes to mind is when a kick out pass by Blackshear was airmailed and seemingly destined for the Courtside at Cassell seats. Wilkins reached up, à la Odell Beckham Jr., and brought the rock down with one hand. Instead of Georgia Tech getting the ball down five, Blackshear made a floater to push the lead to seven. The lead would never get smaller than that the rest of the game.
Those types of plays can make or break a game; preserve momentum. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Hokies needed every ounce of mojo they could muster. The schedule does not get any easier going forward for the Hokies and thus it felt like a must-win. Wilkins' contributions was a main reason Virginia Tech was able to secure a victory they desperately needed.
"I thought today was as big of a game we have played since we have lived here," noted Williams. "I guess as a coach you want to be saying those types of things around Valentine's Day. I think this is probably the fastest we have ever gotten to 19 wins and the fastest we have gotten to eight wins in the ACC. The margin is invisible and we have a lot of work to do to try to see if we can win another road game."
Starting lineup switch? With Wabissa Bede currently... we'll say struggling (and that's using a loose definition of the word), it might be time to think about inserting Wilkins into the starting five. Two months ago, that idea would've gotten laughed out of the room. But Bede hasn't produced, which is now even more apparent with Robinson sidelined. Before his layup to start the second half, Bede had gone 106 minutes without scoring. 106. That's an unacceptable production from an ACC starting point guard. Wilkins is younger and will
probably definitely make more mistakes. But Bede's not playing flawless. He committed four fouls and turned the ball over twice against the Yellow Jackets. At least Wilkins is supplying a much needed spark on offense. He played 28 minutes compared to Bede's 19 against the Yellow Jackets, which is a step in the right direction.
Blackshear is the Most Improved Player this season. There should be no argument here. Blackshear has gone from a so-so player that got in foul trouble seemingly in every game to a multi-tooled, well rounded, big man. Blackshear tied his career high in assists against Georgia Tech while also scoring 16 points. His offensive skill set has grown in a way that makes him a nightmare for opponents. When he receives a pass outside the arc and a defender closes out too fast, he'll spin right on by and drive the lane. If a defender sags off, Blackshear will just knock down the three. And even if an opponent ends up guarding Blackshear perfectly, he's got the vision to find the open man for an easy basket. Oh, and he's 6'10". Good luck.
Time to enter the gauntlet. Virginia Tech's next four games are either on the road or against Virginia and Duke. Yikes. Road games in the ACC should never be chalked up as wins, but if there's ever two games that lean in that direction, it's these next two. The Hokies travel to Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, who are 2-10 and 3-8 in ACC play respectively. Skutt's Sportsbook gives them good odds in both games if Tech plays like they did in the second half. Going 2-2 over the next four games might be the best case scenario right now for the Hokies. It would move Virginia Tech over the 20 overall win mark and put them at 10 wins in the ACC. That right there should be enough to get the Hokies dancing.
Feed. Ty. Outlaw. Listen. When a player that shoots darn near 50% from beyond the arc is on the roster, the message from the coaching staff has to be 'shoot the ball whenever you have an inch of space'. Williams and his coaching staff preach taking "perfect" shots but my god, let the man shoot. Earlier this season, Outlaw wasn't seeing as many minutes as maybe he should have been. But against Georgia Tech, he played 37 minutes and guess what? He put up a game high 20 points via six three pointers and a couple free throws. Hopefully that trend continues for the a Hokies offense that is starving for points without their floor general.
Sound the Horne. P.J. Horne was back in action action and played 9 minutes, chipped in a bucket and a board. An undisclosed knee injury suffered against Wake Forest in January previously had him sidelined. There had been no mention of Horne's return leading up to the game, so him warming up and ready to play was a pleasant surprise. His return provides the Hokies with some semblance of depth again. Buzzketball now has eight healthy scholarship players.