ATLANTIC CITY — The No. 13 Virginia Tech men’s basketball team doesn’t face Syracuse until late next month, but the Hokies received another up-close glimpse of the Orange’s vaunted zone defense in the final game of Saturday’s Boardwalk Classic.
The preview, of sorts, came in the form of Washington, which deploys the zone under second-year Coach Mike Hopkins, an assistant for 22 years under Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, the second winningest coach in college basketball history.
The Hokies handled this version of the zone with crisp ball movement in the first half along with robust defense mostly throughout to forge a 21-point lead before withstanding a minor rally for a 73-61 triumph in the finale of a quadrupleheader at Boardwalk Hall.
“You spend so much time preparing for a zone because it’s so unique, and you know they’re going to play it the entire game, that sometimes you give all your time to that and don’t give time to what you have to do defensively to stop them,” Hokies Coach Buzz Williams said. “And so it’s a delicate balance, but I thought our scout awareness was as good as it’s been all year.”
Nickeil Alexander-Walker led Virginia Tech (9-1) with a game-high 24 points, including 17 in the second half. The majority of the sophomore guard’s field goals after halftime came after the Huskies had trimmed the deficit to single digits.
Alexander-Walker got a layup to fall while drawing a foul and made the bonus free throw. Moments later, Alexander-Walker (9-for-14 shooting, three assists) swished a three-pointer, and the lead was 59-47. His two free throws with 5:56 left gave the Hokies a 61-49 advantage in a game they led for all but 54 seconds.
“He’s a big-time player,” Hopkins said of Alexander-Walker. “He was in the high post. They put him on the three-point line. Just a big-time player, made every play that they needed. Just a great experience against a great team, and hopefully these experiences will help us when we come into the [Pac-12].”
When a four-point play from Matisse Thybulle (team-high 16 points) drew Washington (7-4) within 63-54 with 4:34 to go, Alexander-Walker followed with a three-pointer, and Virginia Tech made 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch for its second win this season against a team from a Power Five conference.
Virginia Tech has two more nonconference games before opening its ACC schedule on New Year’s Day against visiting Notre Dame.
“From the beginning of the season, since boot camp, we’ve faced adversity,” Alexander-Walker said. “And just handling it together instead of separating and getting tighter when things didn’t go our way helped us.”
Three other players scored 10 points for the Hokies, who limited their opponent to 37 percent shooting, including 2 for 11 from beyond the arc in the first half. Virginia Tech attempted 21 free throws to 14 for the Huskies, who committed 15 turnovers.
A 21-4 uprising in the first half allowed Virginia Tech to gain separation on the way to its third consecutive victory, keeping the Hokies perfect in December. Their only loss came to Penn State, 63-62, on Nov. 27 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
P.J. Horne’s two-handed dunk off a pass from Isaiah Wilkins began the decisive run for Virginia Tech, which limited the Huskies to two field goals over the game’s first eight minutes. Horne added another basket, and Justin Robinson (10 points) made a layup for a 20-10 lead that led to a Washington timeout.
The Huskies got a dunk from Jaylen Nowell (10 points, five rebounds) out of the stoppage, but Ahmed Hill scored eight of Virginia Tech’s next 12 points, including a pair of three-pointers. When Robinson added a three-pointer with 5:12 left in the half, the Hokies were in front 35-14.
How Virginia Tech wound up in the Boardwalk Classic unfolded amid unforeseen circumstances, said Williams, who told reporters recently that the Hokies had been scheduled to face Kentucky last weekend but had that game “canceled without us knowing.”
Williams indicated former Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Reynolds, who is on the staff at Texas A&M, was able to secure the Hokies a spot in the Boardwalk Classic as a replacement game.
That Washington served as the opponent added another layer of intrigue, given the schools met for the second time in as many seasons. Last year, Virginia Tech dispatched the Huskies, 103-79, in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden.