SAN JOSE, Calif. — This is what 52 years of pent-up excitement looked like in a small locker room 2,700 miles from Blacksburg.
In one corner, 100 cupcakes were neatly arranged with a “100” emoji, celebrating Buzz William’s 100th win at the school.
In another, players were dumping water bottles on Hokies assistant Dale Layer, who was fired by Liberty in 2015.
Ty Outlaw was at his locker, letting out a primal scream, while the team’s other players were trying to pry the “March Madness” logos off the wall, to take home as a souvenir.
After 40 minutes of defensive excellence, the Hokies enjoyed 40 minutes of pure chaos before a return flight home to a town that is ready to celebrate with them.
Virginia Tech 67, Liberty 58. Time to party like it’s 1967.
Appropriately, this one was won with defense. As the Flames rose to the occasion and pitched a shutout for nearly 3 minutes, the Hokies did the same. Ultimately, a slim lead held up, as Liberty missed 13 of its final 16 shots, a direct result of Tech’s relentless defense.
Midway through last season, the Hokies realized they needed to take defense seriously to be taken seriously in the NCAA tournament. Nearly 14 months later, they delivered a flawless performance in a game where every possession carried its weight in basketball gold.
Virginia’s victory gave the state two teams in the NCAA Sweet 16 and proved the commonwealth’s best defenses aren’t drawn up inside the Pentagon.
“This is amazing,” said guard Wabissa Bede. “I’m exhausted. To see where we started from to where we are now. Amazing.”
The Flames deserve commendation for their defensive efforts. They flustered the Hokies early and hung around in a game where the talent wasn’t evenly distributed between the rosters. Ritchie McKay did the Pack-Line defense proud, and as Tony Bennett has shown down the road, the future is bright when the system is run properly each year.
Liberty also benefited from a second uneven game from Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson. He’s clearly not himself, and while another week will do him some good, it’s unclear if he’s Tech’s best option at this point, or just a security blanket.
The only shame in this battle of defensive titans was it didn’t get the crowd it deserved. The SAP Center in San Jose wasn’t sold out, and the noise levels resembled more of a Theranos board meeting than an NCAA tournament second-round game.
The noise came first from the Liberty students, who were relentless in their pestering, then finally from Outlaw, who yelled at them to pipe down after a 3-pointer in the middle of an 11-0 second-half run that made the difference.
“I’d been trying to get it going the whole first half,” he said. “I was angry with myself at halftime. My teammates had my back. They kept telling me to calm down, erase your mind, and just shoot the ball. They were giving me confidence.”
When Outlaw unleashed a monster block in the final minute (it was a foul, but that didn’t matter), teammate Ahmed Hill came running over with a giant smile, yelling loud enough for the arena to hear: “Oh, my God!”
That was the consensus in the Hokies locker room, as they prepared to head home having achieved a signature accomplishment, thanks to a signature reinvention.
And hey, did you see that Duke got taken to the wire earlier on Sunday?
Not yet. There’s plenty of time to get whipped into an optimistic frenzy over the biggest basketball game in school history, which will be played Friday night just minutes from the Virginia border.
First, a celebration of the Hokies and Flames, carrying the torch out west and showing that Virginia is, for the moment, the home to the best basketball defenses in America.