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Virginia Tech falls to Alabama in NCAA Tournament opener

Virginia Tech falls to Alabama in NCAA Tournament opener

PITTSBURGH — The Virginia Tech men’s basketball team played in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year on Thursday.

And for the second straight year, the Hokies bowed out in the first round.

Ninth-seeded Alabama defeated the eighth-seeded Hokies 86-83 in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in front of 18,715 spectators at PPG Paints Arena.

"Man, I thought we had it," Tech point guard Justin Robinson said.

The Crimson Tide (20-15) will meet Villanova, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, in the second round Saturday.

Virginia Tech would have met Villanova in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament had the Hokies beaten Wisconsin in the first round. But the eighth-seeded Badgers beat the ninth-seeded Hokies 84-74 last year.

Alabama took the lead for good with 7:50 to go.

"It definitely doesn't feel good," Tech guard Devin Wilson said of the loss. "It's just not the best feeling in the world."

The Crimson Tide shot 60 percent from the field — the best percentage by a Tech foe this season. No foe had shot better than 53.4 percent against Tech this year. Alabama scored 34 points in the paint.

"They were just hitting tough shots," Robinson said. "Everything was falling for them."

It was the best percentage by a Tech foe since North Carolina State shot 64.1 percent in a January 2017 win over the Hokies.

"They got a couple open looks, whether we were slipping or [had] bad communication," Wilson said.

Alabama's 86 points were the most Tech had allowed since giving up 91 to Florida State in a Jan. 20 loss. Tech had not allowed more than 75 points in a game since a 84-75 home loss to Miami on Feb 3. That was the game that prompted coach Buzz Williams to start focusing on defense in practice; to adopt a defensive priority of keeping foes out of the lane; and to make the defensive-minded Wilson a starter.

"Too oftentimes our first line of defense on the help side didn't do their job, and now the ball's going downhill to our second line and we're in rotation too  often," Tech coach Buzz Williams said. "It's such a delicate balance, particularly when they have guys on the weak side that can shoot. … The ball's going east and west, you want to hold your gap. But when the ball turns north and south, you've got to stop the ball. … In the second half, they just turned downhill too much and I think that our ball-screen coverage got a little discombobulated."

The Crimson Tide shot 59.3 percent from the field in the first half and 60.9 percent in the second half.

"Early on we [were] doing a lot of mental mistakes that we could have controlled," Tech guard Justin Bibbs said. "[Alabama was] penetrating in too deep; they got too many layups."

NBA prospect Collin Sexton, Alabama’s freshman point guard, scored 22 of his 25 points in the second half. He also had six assists and five turnovers.

Sexton had only one basket in the first half but was 6 of 10 from the field in the second half. One of Sexton's second-half baskets, said Robinson, was a "turnaround, contested, … pro shot."

"Second half, Coach [Avery Johnson] just told me if I got a shot, don't worry about missing, just shoot it and play my game," Sexton said.

Freshman reserve guard John Petty had 20 points off the bench for Alabama. He was 6 of 8 from 3-point range.

"He's so long and can really, really shoot," Williams said. "When that ball's first turning downhill, you've got to stop it. And then when we do stop it, it stopped to him. And we're at that moment in time not necessarily in rotation. Too oftentimes it went through the first line and now our second line's having to help, and now they're kicking it out to him."

Alabama was 8 of 18 from 3-point range and outrebounded Tech 26-22.

The Hokies (21-12) finished the season on a three-game losing streak, including a loss at Miami in the regular-season finale and a loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament. Tech led at halftime in both of those games.

On Thursday, the Hokies led 43-41 at halftime.

With Virginia Tech up 52-47 with 14:45 to go, Petty scored eight straight points to give his team a 55-52 lead with 12:50 left. He had two 3-pointers in the run.

Virginia Tech freshman reserve Wabissa Bede later made a 3-pointer to tie the score at 57 with 11:24 to go.

Bibbs (17 points) later made a layup to give Virginia Tech a 63-61 lead, but Sexton scored to tie the game at 63 with 8:28 to go.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. made one of two free throws to give Tech a 64-63 lead with 8:07 left.

But Tech never led again. Alabama went on a 7-0 run.

Herbert Jones made a layup to give the Crimson Tide a 65-64 lead with 7:50 left.

After a Virginia Tech turnover, Alabama backup Avery Johnson Jr. made one of two free throws to extend the lead to 66-64.

Blackshear missed a jumper and was called for his fourth foul. Sexton made two free throws to extend the lead to 68-64 with 6:48 to go.

Not long after checking back in the game, Blackshear was called for an offensive foul and fouled out with 5:28 left.

Alabama got the ball back, and Sexton made a jumper to extend the lead to 70-64 with 5:10 to go.

Robinson (19 points, seven assists) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (15 points) made back-to-back layups to trim the deficit to 70-68 with 3:21 left.

After Donta Hall dunked to extend the lead to 72-68, Tech reserve P.J. Horne scored to trim the lead to 72-70.

But with the shot clock winding down, Petty buried a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 75-70 with 2:08 left. It was his sixth 3-pointer of the game.

"[Petty] hit a contested 3 at the end of the shot clock," Robinson said.

Robinson made two free throws to cut the lead to 75-72 with 1:58 left. But Sexton made a jumper to extend the lead to 77-72 with 1:34 left.

Sexton later made one of two free throws for a 78-72 cushion with 1:06 remaining.

Robinson made two free throws to cut the lead to 78-74 with 59.6 seconds left.

But Robinson was called for an offensive foul and fouled out with 48 seconds left. Williams did not like the call and was whistled for a technical foul. Sexton made one of two free throws.

"I shouldn't have had the towel in my hand. I think that made it look worse," Williams said. "I thought it was a block. [Former ACC official] John Cahill … told me later it was a charge. He said it was the right call.”

This was the first time Tech had made NCAA appearances in back-to-back seasons since the 1985 and 1986 tournaments.

Tech shot 55.6 percent from the field and was 9 of 18 from 3-point range.

The Hokies shot a sizzling 68 percent from the field in the first half, including 7 of 9 from 3-point range (77.8 percent).

"They shot the ball extremely well in the first half. We couldn't guard them from 3. We had some breakdowns, but those mistakes were correctable," Avery Johnson said.

In the second half, Tech shot 44.8 percent from the field. The Hokies were just 2 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half, and one of those two 3-pointers came in the final 40 seconds.

"We did a much better job of defending them from the 3-point line in the second half," Johnson said. "We had some lazy switches in the first half and they were shooting out of coverage. We didn't come together and do a good job of switching. They were baiting us with their pick-and-rolls with their [center] … and we adjusted our pick-and-roll coverage. … Our adjustment on the pick-and-roll coverage helped us stay in better position.

"We really did a much better job contesting their 3-point shot, but our positioning was better in the second half."

Alabama, in the NCAAs for the first time since 2012, won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2006.

"We knew we had a chance to do something special this year," said Hall, who had 10 points after missing the team's previous game because of the concussion protocol.

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