Chris Clarke’s putback of Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s missed jumper was the difference, giving Virginia Tech its only lead of the second half with four seconds to play. When Grayson Allen missed a three-pointer as the horn sounded, students cascaded down from the stands at Cassell Coliseum, with security relegating the group to one half of the court.
“What was going through my mind, I knew [Alexander-Walker’s shot] was coming off long,” Clarke said. “I was thinking of dunking it, but I knew if I missed it would be bad, so I just put it in.”
The announced sellout crowd of 9,275 witnessed the Hokies further cement their inclusion into the NCAA tournament on the heels of a triumph a little more than two weeks after they upset Virginia, 61-60, in Charlottesville. It’s the only ACC loss for the Cavaliers, now ranked No. 1 in the nation, with two games left in the regular season.
Virginia Tech (21-9, 10-7) erased a nine-point deficit over the final 5:50 to win for the third time in four games thanks not only to Clarke, who scored the final six points of the game, but also to Alexander-Walker, a freshman whose 17 points were his second most in an ACC game.
The starting guard made 7 of 14 field goals and added two steals that were among 18 forced turnovers.
They converted those turnovers into 24 points on the way to ending Duke’s five-game winning streak. The Blue Devils (24-6, 12-5) did not make a field goal over the final 7:02 and dropped to 1-5 this season in games decided by five points or fewer. Allen scored 22 points, but the senior shot just 6 for 18 in weary Duke’s third game in six days.
“They may be the best team in the country, arguably coached by the best coach in the country,” Hokies Coach Buzz Williams said after improving to 2-3 against the Blue Devils since coming to Virginia Tech. “I didn’t see it coming.”
The circumstances looked particularly gloomy when Duke opened a 60-51 lead on two free throws from freshman forward Marvin Bagley III with 5:50 to play.
But the Hokies countered with an 11-3 run featuring a three-pointer from Alexander-Walker and consecutive layups by Clarke, who stole the ball and scored, dribbling virtually end to end, to get Virginia Tech to 63-62 with one minute left.
“I thought we played really tired tonight,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s been a long stretch for us. We knew we were going to face a very energetic, outstanding Virginia Tech team, and for most of the game we had a chance to maintain a little bit of a lead and were in control. Our turnovers killed us.”
The second half featured a milestone for Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson when the Manassas native scored the 1,000th point of his career on a three-pointer. Soon after, the Blue Devils went on an 8-2 run to grow the lead to 41-32, but the Hokies came right back to draw within one following Justin Bibbs’s three-pointer, Kerry Blackshear’s turnaround jumper and Robinson’s three-point play.
The surging Blue Devils played their second consecutive game with Bagley in the lineup after the projected NBA lottery pick and potential No. 1 overall selection had missed the previous four with a sore knee.
His absence appeared to matter little on the court, though, with Duke going 4-0 in that stretch. Allen became a more impactful scorer as well, getting more open space near the rim with only one post player, Wendell Carter Jr., occupying space in the lane.
Allen had averaged 20.2 points over his previous five games and has contributed to Duke playing its most efficiently defensively with March fast approaching. Entering Monday night, the Blue Devils, for the first time in program history, had limited their last four opponents to fewer than 60 points.
In addition, they are one of three teams among the top 20 in offensive and defensive efficiency in the kenpom.com advanced analytics rankings the NCAA tournament committee incorporates into its selection process. The other schools are No. 2 Michigan State and No. 8 Purdue.
Stout defense played a significant role for the Blue Devils on Monday during a 19-3 rush in the first half. The first three field goals during the burst came from beyond the three-point arc, and by the time Bagley scored on a putback, the lead had swelled to 29-14 with nine minutes to go until the break.
The margin became more manageable for Virginia Tech after it answered with an 11-0 run, including the first seven of those points courtesy of Alexander-Walker.
The Hokies trailed 33-27 at intermission, having played a lengthy portion of the first half without Robinson, who left the court to be examined before reentering in the closing minutes but noticeably limping.
“My left ankle’s really tender,” Robinson said, “but I’ll be okay.”