No. 15 Virginia Tech tops Gardner-Webb 87-59 in opener
BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Isaiah Wilkins only found out on Monday that he would play rather than redshirt this season. The baby-faced 18-year-old freshman ended up playing a critical role in No. 15 Virginia Tech's season opener.
Wilkins, the 10th-youngest player in Division 1, scored 21 points as the Hokies fended off an early challenge from Gardner-Webb and went on to win 87-59 on Friday night.
"It was definitely an eye-opener," Wilkins said of his first regular-season game. "The pace is much, much, much different than high school. It's more upbeat — I like it."
Coach Buzz Williams certainly didn't regret his last-minute decision not to redshirt Wilkins, who came off the bench to play 27 minutes and shot 7 of 10 from the field, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range.
"In many respects I thought he saved us tonight," Williams said, adding: "He's smart and he has a feel for how to play."
Nickeil Alexander-Walker also scored 21 points and Kerry Blackshear Jr. added 14 for the Hokies, who allowed Gardner-Webb to keep it close until after halftime.
Nate Johnson scored 17 points to lead the Runnin' Bulldogs (0-2), who crept within four points less than five minutes into the second half. Virginia Tech responded with an 8-0 run and then pulled away.
"I thought we struggled," Williams said. "I thought we would play much better."
Gardner-Webb shot 52 percent in the first half to Virginia Tech's 40 percent but trailed 43-33 at the break, thanks in part to 14 turnovers that led to 12 points for the Hokies. Gardner-Webb finished with 29 turnovers.
"I just think they tightened things up defensively," Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said. "We struggled to get shots. I was really impressed with them defensively — the motor that they play with."
The Hokies had five players finish in double figures and totaled 16 steals in the second-ever meeting between the schools. Virginia Tech also won in 2008.
Alexander-Walker said the Hokies can take a lesson from the Runnin' Bulldogs' brief second-half comeback.
"We have to be the aggressor at all times," he said. "Now that we have a target on our back, we have to respond better."
Virginia Tech: The Hokies were ranked in the AP preseason poll for the first time since 2010, and their preseason ranking was the highest in school history. Before the game, Virginia Tech unveiled a banner honoring its NCAA Tournament bid last season. Williams' team reached the tournament in back-to-back years for the first time since 1985-86.
Gardner-Webb: The Big South school will face two other Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, during a 12-day stretch next month. The Runnin' Bulldogs were picked sixth in the preseason Big South poll.
Virginia Tech: Faces Ball State on Thursday in the Charleston Classic. The Hokies won't play at home again until Nov. 24 against St. Francis (Pennsylvania).
Gardner-Webb: At Furman on Tuesday.