Hoos escape Blacksburg with narrow 57-53 win

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Is it okay to breathe yet?

It wasn't pretty. Most of the time, it was downright ugly. But the Hoos left Blacksburg victorious for the 4th year in a row, doing just enough to grab a 57-53 win.  On a night where nothing could go right for UVA on either side of the ball, the team recovered to win their 10th consecutive game, improving to 13-1 in the conference.  For the third straight season, Virginia clinched a finish in the top 4 of the ACC, and a bye directly into the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.

From the start, there was a sense that the game wouldn't be as easy as Wahoo fans had hoped.  Virginia Tech came out looking more like the team that pushed Pitt to double overtime on the road than the one that played in...well...all their other ACC games.  The Hokies couldn't miss in the first half and took a lead 10 minutes into the game that they'd hold until the final minutes.  The matchup featured the ACC's worst offense against its best defense, but the Hokies scored 28 points in 24 first-half possessions, while UVA couldn't get anything to fall, especially Joe Harris, who missed all 6 of his first-half field goal attempts.

When the Hoos made an early second-half run, Tech responded, stretching the lead to as many as 11 points to ignite a sparse but energetic Cassel crowd.  The Hoos chipped away slowly before making a final push that would win the game.

Down by 4 points with 3:30 to play, Virginia had managed just 1 point in the previous 6 minutes (luckily, the Hokies had just 3 in that span).  Justin Anderson caught the ball after an offensive rebound, and let his 4th three-pointer of the game fly.  Unlike the first three, this one found the net.  Seconds later, it was Joe Harris who finally found his stroke, giving Virginia a lead that would become 5 points when Anderson hit another three on the ensuing possession.

There were still some nervous moments to come when Malcom Brogdon was called for a technical foul for contact above the shoulders on Devin Wilson.  Luckily, Brogdon was fouled just before that contact and knocked down his free-throws to extend a 6 point lead that would hold up.

For the second straight game, the Wahoo defense looked less than elite.  UVA cleaned things up during the game's final quarter to hold Tech to a respectable if unimpressive .98 PPP, but the team struggled early on.  Devin Wilson had a big game against London Perrantes, finishing with 13 points on 5 of 7 shooting, as he split doubles and got to the rim far too easily, while Joey van Zegeren had 13 on 6 of 7 shooting.

And the offense failed to pick the team up.  Often, the team seemed too content to settle for outside shots against the VT zone.  They weren't always bad shots, but settling for jumpers all day was a recipe for a potential upset, especially with the interior advantage the Hoos were failing to exploit.  The Hokies basically never force turnovers; UVA's 6 TOs to VT's 12 probably saved the team from big trouble.

London Perrantes was a bright spot on offense, keeping the Hoos in the game early with two quick three-pointers on his way to 11 points, his highest since the ACC opener at Florida State.  The Hokie zone encouraged him to shoot all game, and he made some plays when the team needed them.  That said, it probably wasn't enough to overcome his struggles on defense.

Malcolm Brogdon led the Hoos with 12 points, but was an ugly 3 of 11 from the field.  Malcolm has been forcing things a bit too much; it seems like some of his driving shots could probably be kick-outs.  He's not playing poorly by any means, but he has made just 14 of his 40 two-point attempts in the past 5 games.  Justin Anderson shook off some early struggles to nail two shots when it mattered most, and throw down on an alley-oop from Brogdon, in what will be the highlight reel play of the game.  On the rare occasions the Hoos did get the ball inside, they were efficient.  Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill, and Darion Atkins combined to score 18 on 8 of 12 shooting.

Joe Harris had his worst game in a long time.  His 2-10 shooting night was a disaster, and the way he missed was even uglier. (Three of his attempts ended as easy VT blocks).  He was also 1 of 3 from the FT line, missing the front end of a big 1 and 1, as the team finished a miserable 8 of 15 overall.  On the bright side, his go-ahead three-pointer was a beauty.  He was begging for the shot the whole possession, and when he received the ball, there was no doubt his NBA range three would find the net.  When Harris shoots with confidence (and without putting the ball on the floor), he is the ACC's most dangerous shooter.

At the end of the day, a win is a win - UVA is 13-1 in the ACC.   We've had some debate in the past couple days about whether winning close games signals that a team "knows how to win," or whether it just caught a bit of luck that's bound to run out.  I've argued for the latter category consistently and believe that, while obviously the better team, UVA was just good enough and fortunate enough to escape after a poor showing.  Virginia came out a bit flat on defense and ice-cold on offense, and the Hokies played a great game.  They took advantage of UVA's deficiencies, made open jumpers, and were almost in position to pull the upset.  Luckily, Virginia's shooting stroke returned just in time.

Seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell will graduate without a loss in Blacksburg.  The Hoos have won 5 straight and 7 out of 8 against the Hokies to go with their 6 game winning streak vs. Maryland.  Beating up on rivals is fun!  Since we've all learned our lesson about jinxing the team by only thinking about whatever's going to happen on March 1st, we'll only mention UVA's next matchup, against Notre Dame at JPJ.  The Hoos hammered the Irish 68-53 in South Bend earlier this season and will look for the sweep Saturday at 2 PM.  That game will be televised on ESPN2.

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