After a Brian Randle layup with 4:27 remaining in the game gave the Illini a 52-42 lead, Illinois was held scoreless down the stretch by Virginia Tech, and dropped their first-round NCAA tournament game 54-52 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Deron Washington scored 8 points for the Hokies after Randle's basket, including a 15 foot bank shot with 46 seconds left which gave Tech a one point lead. A free throw by A.D. Vassallo with 23 seconds left gave Tech a 54-52 lead. After missing a 3-point attempt with 7 seconds left, Randle was fouled after getting his own offensive rebound, but he missed the front end of the one and one, and during the scramble for the rebound, a jump ball was called with .1 seconds left, and Tech secured the victory.
"It's kinda typical of our season.," said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. "We've led nine of our twelve losses, led eight of them down the stretch, and just couldn't finish games."
Until the late-game meltdown, the Illini had executed their game plan to near perfection. Illinois held Virginia Tech to 35% shooting for the game, outrebounded them 37-22, and held the Hokies to a season-low 21 points in the first half, while building a lead that was as large as 13 points with just over 8 minutes to go in the game.
"That might be the best defensive team we've played all season," said Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg. "They're as hard to penetrate as any team we've played against. They do a good job of keeping guys in front and stopping the penetration."
Illinois jumped out to an early lead with strong first half shooting and stifling defense. Virginia Tech shot only 29% in the first half, while Illinois shot 48% from the field, led by Rich McBride who hit three of five three point attempts and had 9 points at the break. Warren Carter chipped in 8 points. Brian Randle had 4 points and 6 rebounds in the opening frame, including a spinning drive for a dunk that brought the crow to it's feet.
Illinois continued to extend their lead in the second half, but with about 8 minutes left in the game, Tech started pressing Illinois full-court, and the Illini struggled with their ball control.
"We've struggled when people have pressed us," said Weber. "I don't know if we turned it over on their end of the court, it was on our end when we didn't have to throw passes."
Illinois racked up 21 turnovers against Virginia Tech's pressure, and 9 of the 21 were in the last 9 minutes of the game, as the Illini forced poor passes after beating the initial pressure of the Hokie press. In the second half alone, Virginia Tech scored 10 points off Illinois turnovers.
The Hokies also started driving off high screens, and Jamon Gordon repeatedly got into the lane and was able to either draw fouls or dish to open players on the wings for good looks.
Illinois was led in scoring by Carter, who finished with 15 points, and McBride, who finished with 14. Brian Randle had a huge game on the boards, with 12 rebounds. Shaun Pruitt was limited to 20 minutes of playing time by two early fouls, and ended up with only 4 points and 4 rebounds.
Virginia Tech was led in scoring by Washington with 14 points, Coleman Collins with 13, and Gordon with 10.
Illinois ended it's season with a 23-12 record. Game Notes:
VaTech's 11 steals against Illinois were a season high for an Illinois opponent.
Good amount of orange in the crowd tonight, and the SIU fans in the corwd were cheering for Illinois to win.
The officiating was horribly inconsistent. There was some mugging going on under the basket at one end of the court with no whistles, and bumps at the other end were drawing whistles. Larry Rose was one of the officials….he called the Washington game last year, too.
Deron Washington is a dirty player. He got called for 4 fouls, including an intentional, but he clocked Brian Randle with an elbow at the top of the key that the officials missed, and he also undercut Randle on an alley-oop attempt that wasn't called, either. Lots of grabbing and smacking, but the officials let it go.