SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — After back-to-back years of first-round losses in the NCAA Tournament, Virginia Tech finally broke through.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker scored 20 points, Kerry Blackshear added 15 and the fourth-seeded Hokies earned their first NCAA Tournament win in 12 years by beating No. 13 seed Saint Louis 66-52 on Friday night.
The Hokies (25-8) had lost to Alabama and Wisconsin the past two years under coach Buzz Williams before using a fast start to advance to a second-round matchup against No. 12 seed Liberty in the East Region.
“It felt amazing,” guard Ahmed Hill said. “We know there’s still more work to do on our end, but getting the first one out of the way feels very good.”
Virginia Tech got a big boost to go along with the lopsided win with the return of star point guard Justin Robinson. The Hokies had been without their floor leader the past 12 games because of an injured left foot but he came in off the bench and scored nine points in 27 minutes as he works his way back into game shape. He got a hug from Williams on the sideline after he came out of the game in the final minute.
“It was like riding a bike,” Robinson said. “There was a little rust. I had three assists, four turnovers, I was 2 of 7 from the field. I don’t think that’s very efficient but the first game to get rust off and get back out there was good for me.”
Javon Bess scored 14 points and D.J. Foreman added 12 for the Billikens (23-13), who lost in their first tournament game since 2014.
After three double-digit seeds won to start the day in San Jose, the Hokies wasted little time in imposing their will and making sure there wouldn’t be another upset.
They used a 10-0 run early in the first half to open a 13-point lead and didn’t slow down. Virginia Tech built a 40-18 lead at the half, forcing 12 turnovers and allowing the Billikens just one 3-pointer on nine attempts.
“I think seeing all those games we got like a feel for the environment of the tournament,” Blackshear said. “We definitely didn’t want to be one of those teams.”
Saint Louis tried to make it a game with back-to-back 3-pointers from Tramaine Isabell Jr. to cut the deficit to 10 points midway through the second half. But that was as close as the Billikens got the rest of the way.
“We just got off to a slow start,” Bess said. “We just relied on the fact that we had good second halves in the four games in the conference tournament. When you play a team as good as them, it hurts. It hurts you at the end.”
Saint Louis: Coach Travis Ford fell to 1-7 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. He lost the opener in his only trip with Eastern Kentucky in 2005 and then again in his final four trips with Oklahoma State. His only win came in the first round against Tennessee in 2009 before losing to Pittsburgh.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies matched a school record with their 25th win and are in position to make a longer tournament run with only 12th-seeded Liberty standing in the way of the school’s first trip to the Sweet Sixteen since making the regional final in 1967.
Robinson came into the game with 13:39 to play in the first half. He had a steal that led to a fast-break basket by Hill and then made his first shot he took, a 3-pointer that made it 26-8. He yelled “I’m back!” to the crowd after making that shot.
The Hokies won despite making just 4 of 19 shots from the field for the entire second half. Virginia Tech won the game at the line instead, making 17 of 21 free throws.
The Hokies will play Liberty in the second round in a rematch of a charity game in November. Virginia Tech won 86-70 in a game that raised money for hurricane relief.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/MarchMadness and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.