SAN JOSE — The only time Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams looked displeased on Sunday night came less than half an hour after his team had advanced to the Sweet 16 with a win over Liberty. He sat at the dais in front of the media and shook his head after his players were asked about their next opponent, top-seeded Duke, in this weekend’s East Region semifinals at Capital One Arena in Washington.
It has been less than a month since Virginia Tech upset Duke in Blacksburg, but there was a major caveat — the Blue Devils were without injured freshman star Zion Williamson. He will be in uniform for the rematch next weekend, which naturally was at the forefront on Sunday night as the team prepared to head back to the East Coast.
“Very excited just to play,” said guard Ahmed Hill, who left it at that.
“Perfect answer,” said Williams, who looked annoyed. After all, during that late February win, the Hokies didn’t have senior point guard Justin Robinson due to a foot injury. Williamson’s return has elevated Duke into the favorite to win the national championship. But Virginia Tech has its swagger back as well with Robinson, who after missing two months returned this week and led the Hokies to their first Sweet 16 berth since 1967. Both teams have grown because of the late season attrition, which only raises the stakes for their second meeting Friday at Capital One Arena.
“It just gives us confidence that they are the No. 1 team in the country, but we can run with them. We didn’t have our best player, they didn’t have their best player,” Hokies forward Ty Outlaw said. “At least our centerpiece, if you ask me, it’s even. The best team will win.”
Virginia Tech was struggling with Liberty in the first half on Sunday night as Duke rallied for a last second win over UCF. After the Hokies had followed suit, thanks to stifling second half defense and a string of clutch plays by Robinson down the stretch, they found out they would face the Blue Devils. And while this meeting won’t be in Blacksburg — Virginia Tech has beaten Duke three consecutive times on its home floor — it will take place just hours from campus.
“[Williamson’s] a really great player They’re a really great team. With or without him they got five really good guys on the floor,” Virginia Tech guard Kerry Blackshear, who had 23 points in the first meeting. “And we got [Robinson], so that does so much for our team. We’re excited to have the opportunity to play them again, especially on a neutral site in Washington, D.C.”
While Williamson led Duke with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists to hold off UCF, Robinson came off the bench and looked more comfortable than he did in his first game back on Friday night in a win over Saint Louis. He played 29 minutes on Sunday, finishing with 13 points and four assists against just two turnovers; his pullup jumper in the final minutes gave Virginia Tech a seven-point lead. This came just seven days after he had been medically cleared to start playing again, and he spent most of the week working on his conditioning and running dummy offense with his teammates. He will arrive for the rematch with Duke with even more time to prepare his body for the biggest game of his storied career.
“I think the first game was an opportunity to be able to get some rust off, not being able to be in there for 12 games, and coming in to playing 29 minutes, it took a toll on my body,” Robinson said. “But I was ready to do everything to make my team win.”
Williams did not address the matchup with Duke in his postgame news conference on Sunday night. He rather focused on yet another milestone during this historic season. Williams had led the program to their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for the first time in school history. Then the Hokies won their first NCAA tournament game in 12 years on Friday night.
Then came Sunday, when they advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 52 years. The Hokies have ambitions of pushing farther, but to do so, will have to beat Duke again — this time with both teams at full strength.
“The fact that we get to play them is fun,” Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “We are going to run up to the challenge head first.”
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