|Virginia Tech, Northeastern meet in Charleston Classic semifinals|
The Virginia Tech Hokies -- without multiple players they hoped would be part of their roster this season -- managed the opening game of the Charleston Classic as well as they reasonably could.
They definitely managed their first game in South Carolina better than the Alabama Crimson Tide. As a result, Virginia Tech will face the Northeastern Huskies in Friday's first semifinal of the pre-Thanksgiving tournament.
Virginia Tech entered Charleston without the services of Chris Clarke (suspension) and Landers Nolley (ineligible to play). The Hokies carried a limited bench into a three-games-in-four-days tournament. They knew that they would need strong games from several different players, and that's what happened against Ball State.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker carried the day for the Hokies. The sophomore played 38 minutes and scored 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting. When Ball State tried to make a push midway through the second half, Alexander-Walker scored important baskets to halt the Cardinals' comeback bid.
Kerry Blackshear scored 18 points and provided six offensive rebounds for Virginia Tech. Justin Robinson didn't shoot well (5 of 14), but handed out six assists and collected four steals.
All told, Alexander-Walker, Blackshear and Robinson scored 54 of Virginia Tech's 73 points, roughly 75 percent.
"I thought we were much better than we were in our first game Last Friday," Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams told ESPN's Sean Farnham after the game. "I was a little concerned that maybe we made a scheduling problem because we only had one game (before this one), but I thought our guys, including our staff -- we did a very good job of getting back to what we need to be about."
What is Virginia Tech about? Defensive effort.
The Hokies weren't always crisp with their defensive rotations. In some two- or three-minute sequences on Thursday, late responses led to open corner threes for Ball State. However, the Cardinals didn't make many of their opportunities, finishing 9-of-27 from 3-point range. When Ball State didn't take advantage of its better possessions, it paid a price.
Virginia Tech clamped down on Ball State for most of the day, especially the end of the first half. Ball State scored just seven points in the final nine minutes of the half, as Virginia Tech gained a 43-29 halftime lead. This enabled the Hokies to surrender a 10-0 run early in the second half and still have a small working margin.
Walker-Alexander played his best basketball midway through the second half to extend that margin, and as soon as Virginia Tech thwarted Ball State's surge, the energy of the game changed. The Hokies swarmed Ball State's two best players, Tayler Persons (21 points) and Kyle Mallers (19 points), forcing a third Cardinal player to beat them.
That player never did emerge.
The Ball State supporting cast surrounding Persons and Mallers hit a total of just eight field goals and shot just 32 percent (8 of 25). Ball State's non-Persons, non-Mallers players hit just two 3-pointers (2 of 10). The Cardinals collected just nine bench points.
This was exactly the kind of performance which enabled Virginia Tech to win despite its own short bench. The Hokies' reserves scored just four points, but their three best players carried the day.
Virginia Tech will meet Northeastern, a 68-52 winner over Alabama on Thursday. The Huskies denied Alabama a chance to meet Virginia Tech for a second time in 2018. The two schools faced each other in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, with Alabama winning.
Northeastern was never truly challenged in the program's first-ever win over an SEC school. The Huskies led 33-22 at halftime and maintained that lead throughout the second half. Alabama hit no 3-pointers in the first half and finished 3 of 19 from the arc for the game. The Tide hit just 37 percent of their field goals and were constantly hesitant against the Huskies' defense.
Northeastern hit 52 percent of its field goals (22 of 42) and 53 percent of its threes (9 of 17). Vasa Pusica scored 20 points on 4-of-4 3-point shooting with five assists and three steals. He gave Alabama a lot of problems. He did, however, commit five turnovers, something Virginia Tech's defense will take note of in the Charleston semifinals.
Jeremy Miller scored 11 points coming off the bench for Northeastern. Miller was elated about the win. He spoke about the Huskies' chance to play yet another Power Five conference opponent in Charleston:
"Everyone's hype, everyone's really into it," he said. "I think it brings out a different side to us. We have something to prove this year."
Northeastern played like a team with something to prove on Thursday. Virginia Tech will test the Huskies' acumen and aspirations on Friday in South Carolina.