Jackets crumble against Cavaliers in season finale

Senior guard Kyle Sturdivant looks for the corner pass against the Virginia Cavaliers in his final regular season. // Photo courtesy of GTAA

In an electrifying conclusion to their regular season, the Tech men’s basketball team experienced the highs of a last-second victory against Wake Forest, followed by a challenging defeat at the hands of Virginia in the final game of its regular season. 

On March 5 at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Tech came out victorious in a 70-69 victory over Wake Forest, marking its third consecutive win and fourth in the last five games. The Jackets also snapped the Wake Forest Demon Deacons’ unbeaten home record with the win. The hero of the night was freshman forward Baye Ndongo, who, with just 0.4 seconds left on the clock, executed a flawless baseline hook shot off an inbounds play to seal the Jackets’ win.

The game was a rollercoaster of emotions, but it started with Tech initially establishing  a commanding lead. The game began with the Jackets jumping out to a 12-0 lead, thanks in part to their sharpshooting from beyond the arc. Junior guard Miles Kelly was particularly lethal, hitting 4-of-4 from three-point range in the first half and  helping Tech establish a comfortable 40-26 lead at the break. However, the second half saw a determined Wake Forest chip away at the deficit. Led by junior guard Cameron Hildreth and junior guard Hunter Sallis, the Demon Deacons mounted a comeback. 

Hildreth, with 13 of his 17 points coming after the break, and Sallis, who led all scorers with 22 points, were instrumental in Wake Forest’s second-half push. The Jackets had no answer for Sallis hitting jump shots  in the lane and he gave  the Demon Deacons a brief lead with just 18 seconds to go. The tension peaked when Kelly drove into the lane and tripped, leading to a scramble that ultimately resulted in Tech retaining possession for one final chance to win the game.

Ndongo’s game-winning basket was a testament to his composure and skill, as he opted against a pass back to inbounder freshman point guard Naithan George, instead taking on Wake’s 7-foot junior center Efton Reid III to loft the winning shot over with just 0.4 seconds left on the clock. With no timeouts left, Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes was unable to draw up a play for his squad, nor was he able to  get up  a quality shot as time expired. For Wake Forest, the loss has the potential to ruin its chances of getting into the NCAA tournament, making the win for Tech just that much sweeter. The Jackets shot a blazing 53.7% from the floor, a factor that certainly contributed to their ability to win the game. 

It was also the best shooting percentage that Tech had since its 84-79 loss to Duke on Jan. 13. This victory avenged an earlier season defeat to Wake Forest on Feb. 6, where the Jackets fell to the Demon Deacons at McCamish Pavilion.

The season’s final game at John Paul Jones Arena saw the Jackets face a formidable team in Virginia who will likely be in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has the Cavaliers as one of the last four teams that will get into the tournament.The sharpshooting and defensive prowess characteristic of coach Tony Bennett’s squad was on full display in Virginia securing a 72-57 win on its Senior Night. Virginia’s proficiency from beyond the arc proved too much for Tech, despite Ndongo leading all scorers with an impressive 21-point effort.

Tech found itself in a tight contest for the first 11 minutes. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers pulled away in the latter part of the first half and went on an insurmountable 23-9 run. Ndongo’s standout performance, alongside contributions from  George and senior guard Kyle Sturdivant led the way for the Jackets’ with both notching eight points a piece. 

Despite this, the Cavaliers’ balanced attack and efficient ball movement, highlighted by senior guard Reece Beekman’s 21 points and nine assists, kept the Jackets at bay. Virginia’s defensive strategy also paid dividends, holding Tech to just 40.4% shooting from the floor.

With a blend of seasoned experience and young talent, the Jackets have demonstrated their capability to compete against the Atlantic Coastal Conference (ACC)’s best as they are 8-12 in Quad 1 games despite finishing at 13 out of 15 in the conference. Their performance in close games, ability to rebound effectively and improved free throw shooting in recent outings highlight areas of progress and potential.

Tech will look to keep its season alive as the team heads to the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C., where it will look to get revenge in a first-round matchup against a Notre Dame team that has beaten the Jackets’ twice this year. They have played inspired basketball over their recent stretch and have a chance to make noise in the ACC.