MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson knew there would be a time when the Hokies couldn’t keep up the frenetic pace that vaulted them to their best start in 30 years. He just didn’t know how they would respond.
On Saturday, Johnson got the answer he was looking for, but it wasn’t enough to save Virginia Tech’s undefeated record. After clawing back to take the lead late, the Hokies lost in heartbreaking fashion at West Virginia, 68-67, thanks to a defensive breakdown at the worst possible moment.
Clinging to a one-point lead with nine seconds remaining in regulation, Virginia Tech guard Robert Brown and forward Cadarian Raines didn’t communicate properly on a screen after a West Virginia inbounds play. Mountaineers guard Juwan Staten then dribbled through the duo untouched for his only basket of the afternoon — an easy lay-in that proved to be the game-winner.
Virginia Tech’s Erick Green got one final shot to salvage a comeback victory, but his pull-up jumper at the buzzer bounced off the rim and backboard before falling harmlessly to the ground.
“I had a great look, honestly. I thought it was in. I really thought it was good,” a dejected Green said moments later. “I guess I left it a little short, but I couldn’t get a better look than I had.”
After the game, Brown stood in a hallway in the bowels of WVU Coliseum, trying to explain the costly defensive miscue to assistant coach Mark Byington — “We didn’t pay attention to details on that,” he later told reporters — but it wasn’t the only reason Virginia Tech suffered its first loss of the season Saturday.
The Hokies got man-handled on the glass, giving up 23 offensive rebounds and 34 points in the paint to the bigger, stronger Mountaineers.
“That was the game,” Johnson said.
West Virginia, which entered Saturday shooting just 23 percent from three-point range, also hit 10 of its 24 three-pointers. Center Aaric Murray led the way with 15 points, but it was forward Kevin Noreen who caught the Hokies by surprise. He finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds after averaging 1.3 points in West Virginia’s first six games of the year.
Johnson said allowing the Mountaineers to shoot jumpers was part of Virginia Tech’s game plan.
“They made shots they hadn’t been making all year,” he noted.
Even in defeat, though, the Hokies showed a resilience they hadn’t needed in their previous seven wins. With West Virginia slowing the tempo whenever possible, Virginia Tech was held to a season-low 24 points in the first half. It didn’t help that forward Jarell Eddie, the team’s second-leading scorer, was limited to just 20 minutes and five points due to foul trouble.
But paced by another spectacular performance from Green (23 points, 10 assists, zero turnovers) and the complementary scoring of Brown (career-high 21 points), the Hokies upped the tempo after halftime and responded to every West Virginia run, including an 11-2 Mountaineers surge that gave them a four-point lead and sent a sold-out crowd into delirium with less than seven minutes left.
It appeared, however, that the Hokies would be done in by two missed free throws from Raines that left Virginia Tech down by one with 38 seconds left on the clock. But after Murray hit just one of two free throws on the other end, Brown put the Hokies back on top with a lucky three-point bank shot with 18 seconds remaining. It seemed apropos for a team few expected to be undefeated one month into the season.
As it turned out, the good karma would be short-lived.
“I thought we had this one in the bag after that,” Brown said. “To be on such a high and then come back and have a mishap on defense kind of flattens you out.”