WASHINGTON — When the ball grazed off the left side of the rim Friday night, Ahmed Hill sat on the baseline with his hands raised above his head, in shock and disappointment and utter, inexplicable disbelief.
The play had been perfect. The execution had been perfect. All Hill had to do was give the ball a little push, and it would be overtime. Surely this game would be headed to overtime. I mean, how could this game not be headed to overtime?
Then, Hill realized what had occurred. He realized the game would not be heading to overtime. He lowered his arms and bowed his head, no longer wondering what had happened but still asking why.
“It was a great look, great pass,” teammate Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “Wasn’t meant to be.”
For a second consecutive game, top-seeded Duke survived a last-second shot attempt to advance in the NCAA tournament, this time to the Elite Eight. And for the second consecutive game, the Blue Devils left an opponent in shock. Last weekend, it was Central Florida. This time, it was Virginia Tech.
“I’m not even going to lie to you,” Duke star Zion Williamson said after his team’s 75-73 win. “When (Hill) caught it, I said, ‘Ah, we’re about to go to overtime.’ I mean I don’t know what happened.”
Neither does Hill.
“I just came up short finishing it,” he said. “That’s pretty much it.”
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The missed tip-in was a devastating end to Virginia Tech’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1967 — and an equally devastating coda on Hill’s career at Virginia Tech.
When Hill arrived on campus, the Hokies were coming off a 9-22 season and a 2-16 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They were lucky to get 500 fans to a game, he said, let alone a sellout. But when Buzz Williams arrived, interest started to grow. And success came with it.
Hill was a key cog in that turnaround, just as he was Friday night. Before the missed tip-in — and a missed three-pointer five seconds earlier — the Augusta, Georgia native helped give the Hokies a jolt. He had 15 points and six rebounds, fueling the offense in the first half and helping contain Duke’s freshman trio.
“He was our heart, our energy guy,” Alexander-Walker said.
“He gave us everything, the entire game,” added Kerry Blackshear Jr. “He guarded anybody on the floor. He was great defensively. … He’s the hardest worker out of anybody I’ve ever met.”
After two attempts at the go-ahead basket in the final five seconds fell short, Williams and assistant coach Jamie McNeilly decided to call up a play that has long been part of their arsenal. The play has no name, but Virginia Tech has run it before in past years — often in similar situations, with a similar cast.
The idea is to get the ball to Hill in one of two ways. If a defender, in this case Williamson, decided to go under a defensive switch, Hill would have enough space to get off a three. But if the defender stayed with Hill and trailed him, as was the case Friday, then there would be room for a lob, which senior point guard Justin Robinson delivered.
“It was the right call,” Williams said. “And (Robinson), that’s just who he is. The pass was perfect. Med caught it. He just missed it.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski pointed out that there’s a certain level of pressure in instances like that, when you’re in the air and everyone is expecting you to complete the play. He credited the Blue Devils for forcing Virginia Tech into that spot.
“Sometimes the old (saying is) the operation was a success, but the patient died,” Krzyzewski said. “Their play was a success but it didn’t work.”
In a quiet Virginia Tech locker room, everyone credited the coaching staff, and multiple people tried to assume blame for the play. Robinson said the miss was his fault, because the pass was a bit off-center. Alexander-Walker said it was his fault, because he didn’t help Hill out enough over the course of the game.
“We run that five times, we probably make it four out of five,” Alexander-Walker said. “So I’m not mad at the result. … Ahmed got a great look. And I’m pretty sure everyone here would be happy if we had to give him that look again.”
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.