Virginia Tech 54, Illinois 52
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Virginia Tech waited 11 years to get back to the NCAA tournament. Then it took the Hokies more than 39 minutes to find a way to stick around.
Deron Washington’s banked runner in the final minute Friday night helped Virginia Tech rally from a 13-point deficit with just over 8 minutes left and beat Illinois 54-52 in a first-round game in the West Regional.
“It kind of reflects who we are,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “We don’t shoot it the straightest, we make easy things difficult. But we just keep on going. We have a resiliency about us.”
The winning shot, like this defense-dominated game, was ugly.
“I wasn’t trying to bank it, but I’ll take it,” Washington said with a wide grin.
The fifth-seeded Hokies will play Southern Illinois in the second round on Sunday.
Illinois (23-12) led by 10 with just over 4 minutes left, but didn’t score in the last 4:28 as the Hokies had the last 12 points.
The Hokies (24-11) pulled within two at 52-50, with Washington hitting a 3-pointer, Coleman Collins making two free throws and Washington dropping another 3 from the right corner with 2:25 left.
While the Fighting Illini continued to have problems at the offensive end, the Hokies suddenly had all the answers.
“It’s an understatement to say we’re disappointed,” Illini coach Bruce Weber said. “But it’s kind of typical of our season. We’ve led in something like eight or nine of our 12 losses, but just couldn’t finish the game.”
After Jamon Gordon’s free throw and a miss by Illinois, the Hokies trailed 52-51 with just under a minute left. They moved the ball around the perimeter before Washington drove the lane and launched a 14-footer that bounded off the backboard and fell in with 45.5 seconds left.
A.D. Vassallo added a free throw after two more Illinois misses, leaving the Illini with one last shot.
The Illini cycled the ball before settling for Brian Randle’s jumper from the left corner with 7 seconds left. The ball caromed back toward him and he got the rebound, but was fouled by a diving Washington with 4.9 seconds left.
Randle, a junior shooting just 57.7 percent at the line for his career, then missed the front end of the bonus situation. The ball rolled loose in a scrum, Randle picked it up and tried to get off a shot while a defender also had his hands on it.
The arrow favored Virginia Tech in the alternate possession. The Hokies, making their eighth NCAA trip but first since 1996, killed off the final one-tenth of a second with a pass to midcourt to seal the win.
“It was fitting that the game ended on a jump ball,” Collins said. “It was a fight.”
Washington led the Hokies with 14 points, and Collins added 13.
“There are certain points in your career where you can almost feel yourself watching from the stands and being a part of a great game,” Collins said. “You feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. This was that type of game.”
Warren Carter led the Illini with 15 points, and Rich McBride had 14 before leaving in the final minutes with cramps.
After Randle scored inside with 4:28 left, the Illini, who had won their last nine NCAA first-round games, missed their last seven shots from the field and had three turnovers.
“We have played against a lot of presses, but I feel like our nerves got the best of us,” Carter said. “When you’re in a March Madness tournament, it’s one loss and you’re done. (The Hokies) just weren’t going to quit.”
Virginia Tech struggled down the stretch, losing three of their last four games and going 5-6 over the last 11 heading into the NCAA tournament. The Hokies persevered against the Illini despite shooting just 36 percent from the field and missing 10 free throws.
The game wasn’t pretty, but it was somehow a perfect fit for a game played in a Big Ten locale.
Illinois came out of the blocks throwing its weight around under the basket to grab the lead, then relied on its bruising defense the rest of the way.
The Illini led 29-21 at the half before the Hokies opened the second half on a 6-2 run. A technical on Greenberg helped the Illini build a 47-34 lead with just over 8 minutes left.
Against Illinois’ brawny defense, that margin seemed to be more than enough.
“Coach always says that life isn’t fair,” Carter said. “But we sort of put ourselves in this situation. We just couldn’t crawl out of it.”