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Hokies headed to Sweet 16 after 67-58 victory against Liberty, Duke awaits in D.C.

Dribbling out the clock Sunday night in the closing seconds of East Region No. 4 seed Virginia Tech’s 67-58 win against No. 12 seed Liberty, Justin Robinson stood a few feet away from Hokies coach Buzz Williams, smiles broad across both of their faces.

Why not sharing a mirthful moment after waiting so long to break through? It was worth taking a couple of seconds to soak it all in at the end of the NCAA tournament second-round game.

After all, this is a road seldom-traveled by Tech’s men’s basketball program.

For the first time since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Tech is headed to the Sweet 16. It also made it that far in the 1967 tournament, but back then, there were only 23 teams in the tournament.

“We didn’t want this to be the last time that we were together,” Tech guard Ahmed Hill said. “We have a real special group, and we just want to prolong our playing time together.”

Tech (26-8), which established a school single-season record for victories, has a tall order Friday night in the Sweet 16 against No. 1 seed Duke in Washington, D.C. Duke survived 77-76 Sunday against No. 9 seed Central Florida.

On Feb. 26, Tech defeated Duke 77-72 in Blacksburg. Duke was without eventual ACC Player of the Year Zion Williamson, who sat out because of a sprained knee, but Tech was missing Robinson, its starting point guard who was dealing with a left foot injury that would keep him out for 12 games.

Forward Kerry Blackshear led Tech on Sunday with 19 points and nine rebounds, while Ty Outlaw had his first double-double as a Hokie with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Hill added 14 points and Robinson chipped in with 13 points.

Tech used a 16-3 run in the second half to grab a 52-44 lead with 10:20 remaining. Liberty (29-7), which was paced by Darius McGhee’s 15 points off the bench, missed 13 of its last 16 shots from the floor and made 27.3 percent of its field-goal attempts in the final 20 minutes.

“I don’t have to motivate these guys,” said Williams, who last made it to at least the Sweet 16 in the 2012-13 season, when he took Marquette to the Elite Eight — his third straight trip to the Sweet 16 or beyond with the Golden Eagles.

“(Tech’s players) want to play. More importantly, they want to do right. ...but it wasn't hard.”

Though Tech shot 48.3 percent from the field in the second half, it struggled to get on a roll in the opening half, connecting on just 35.7 percent. Liberty built a lead as large as eight points in the first half before going on to take a 32-29 halftime advantage.

Tech misfired on 17 of its first 24 field-goal attempts, but made three of its last four in the first half to generate a little momentum going into the locker room. Hill made a big 3-pointer with three seconds left in the half.

It was the first of two huge moments for Hill.

With 3:13 remaining in the game, Tech was clinging to a 56-50 lead as it prepared for an inbounds play under the basket. Robinson spotted Hill, who caught Liberty forward Scottie James unaware in the middle of the lane, slipping past James for an alley-oop layup.

Making matters worse for Liberty, which shot 38.3 percent from the floor for the game, James fouled Hill on the play. Hill made the ensuing free throw to put Tech ahead 59-50.

Liberty guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz made a 3-pointer with 2:20 remaining to trim Tech’s lead to 59-54. Liberty, which turned the ball over 12 times compared to seven turnovers for Tech, wouldn’t get any closer down the stretch.

Blackshear and Outlaw put the game away in the final 40 seconds, making four straight free throws. Tech was 6 of 7 from the free-throw line in the second half and 12 of 16 for the game.

“This moment is so big for us,” said Blackshear, who helped Tech finish with a 30-10 edge on points in the paint. “It’s so big for everybody in this program. I thought of Ernest (Eugene, a former Tech trainer who was hired last year by the Orlando Magic), thought of (former Tech player) Devin Wilson, thought of (former Tech assistant) coach (Jeff) Reynolds, thought of (former Tech player Justin) Bibbs. Just all those people who helped us get to this point. It's been a long journey.”

Norm Wood, 757-247-4642, nwood@dailypress.com

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