SAN JOSE — As the final seconds ticked down on Virginia Tech’s 67-58 win over Liberty on Sunday night, Justin Robinson dribbled out the clock near the sideline so he could share the moment with his coach, Buzz Williams. They were about to clinch the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 1967, but this also was personal.
“Congratulations,” Williams whispered to his star before telling him how proud he was. Then he tapped Robinson on the head twice before the buzzer sounded on the most important Hokies postseason win in 52 years.
The bond between Robinson and Williams had been one of the central story lines during this first weekend of the NCAA tournament, and it was easy to see why Sunday night.
Virginia Tech, which will meet No. 1 seed Duke in the East Region semifinals Friday at Capital One Arena, would not have won this game without making defensive adjustments to hold the Flames to a 6-for-22 shooting performance in the second half. Nor would the Hokies have won without Kerry Blackshear Jr.’s 19 points and nine rebounds, along with 14 hard-earned points from Ahmed Hill on a night when the Hokies outscored Liberty 30-10 in the paint.
But Williams also needed Robinson’s presence and leadership, especially in the second half when Virginia Tech (26-8) found itself trailing and in danger of being upset by an in-state foe. Robinson was playing in just his second game since he missed nearly two months with a foot injury, and while he struggled to re-acclimate in the team’s first-round win over Saint Louis on Friday night, he played 29 minutes Sunday and made a string of crucial plays down the stretch. He again looked like his old self.
“There was never any assurance that he was going to be able to play again. Obviously, we were all hoping that, but he hasn’t played since January,” Williams said of Robinson, who finished with 13 points and four assists Sunday. “And for him to be able to come back on this stage . . . just thankful, thankful for my relationship with him.”
Virginia Tech closed the first half by hitting four of its last five shots, including a three-pointer from Hill with three seconds remaining to pull the Hokies within three at halftime. Liberty (29-7) made seven three-pointers in the first half, including four from reserve guard Darius McGhee.
But the Hokies made defensive adjustments and pulled ahead with an 11-0 run midway through the second half, capped by an acrobatic layup by Robinson to give Virginia Tech a 52-44 lead with 10:20 remaining.
“I just thought we came out with more energy. First half, I thought we played defense but kind of was just, ‘eh,’ ” Hill said. “I think we just picked up the intensity and kind of talked to one another. We began to move better, faster, sharper mentally, and I think that was the difference.”
After McGee had hit another deep three to help close Liberty’s deficit, Robinson made a crucial basket with just under seven minutes remaining to push the lead to 54-49. Nickeil Alexander-Walker extended the lead to seven with another layup with 4:04 remaining, and Hill converted a three-point play to make it 59-50 with just over three minutes left. An assistant wrapped his arms around Williams, who let out a roar.
“I think it starts with his consistency that gives us energy on and off the floor,” Blackshear said. “I think he’s dedicated to teaching us, and I think we have a group that is dedicated to learning.”
Liberty pulled within 59-54 on a three-pointer from guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz with 2:21 remaining. But Robinson responded with a pullup jumper on the next possession, and Pacheco-Ortiz couldn’t convert a runner in the lane on the next trip. Virginia Tech sealed it a few moments later on a layup by Blackshear.
When it was finally over, Williams embraced Robinson and then walked over to give Liberty Coach Ritchie McKay a hug. Then he strolled into his victorious locker room to tell his players everything he had learned from them on this night. Williams wrote on the whiteboard, “Clarity of purpose brings perspective.”
Robinson sat with his bare feet perched on a chair afterward, glancing in the direction of the board.
“To think about how the story has unfolded and how I missed 12 games,” Robinson said, shaking his head. “And now we’re on our way to the Sweet 16.”