SAN JOSE, Calif. — The final buzzer sounded Sunday night, and the realization began to sink in for Liberty senior guard Lovell Cabbil.
The incredible four-year run, an odyssey that began with a slew of losses against Division I competition and culminated in an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, had come to a close. The 6-foot-3 Texas native would no longer don the familiar red, white and blue jersey or step onto the court with his teammates.
Instead of a cascade of tears that comes with the sadness of a season concluding, Cabbil began reflecting on his journey that mirrored the program’s upward trajectory from a cellar dweller to a contender for NCAA Tournament berths.
It was why he was upbeat after the Flames fell to Virginia Tech 67-58 in the second round of the Big Dance at the SAP Center. A program that had never won an NCAA Tournament game prior to this season was one of the final 32 teams playing in college basketball’s showcase event.
“It means a lot. This will be a year that I will never forget in my life,” said Cabbil, who scored nine points in his swansong. “ … Throughout this entire journey from the offseason to now, it was fun. It was amazing. I love these guys … I’m going to miss playing with all of them. I don’t think words can explain how fun this year was.”
The loss ended the best season in program history. The Flames (29-7) set a record for most victories in a single season regardless of classification (Division I, Division II and NAIA), and won in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four trips.
The second NCAA Tournament win has to wait for another season after the fourth-seeded Hokies (26-8) used a 16-3 run spanning nearly five minutes to take a 52-44 lead on Justin Robinson’s driving layup with 10:20 remaining.
The Hokies, who advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1967, didn’t trail for the rest of the game.
“It was big. We had our backs against the wall, they tested us and we answered well, I think,” Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. The sophomore had six points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals.
“We didn’t shy away from the competition, we didn’t hang our heads and get offensively sensitive, and we just kept playing, kept playing hard. We knew that something was going to have to change, and we didn’t wait for it to change. We went on and changed it.”
Virginia Tech scored on 7 of 8 possessions and used its strong perimeter shooting to open up driving lanes and inside chances for Kerry Blackshear Jr. during the game-defining run.
“They’re a challenging team to guard because they have so many weapons,” Liberty redshirt junior guard Caleb Homesley.
After scoring 30 points Friday against Mississippi State, the 6-foot-6 Homesley had eight points on 3-of-11 shooting. “They’re really balanced in scoring, just like us, and I thought that they just ran the middle-ball screen a lot and it opened up a lot of opportunities,” he added. “When you have a point guard like Justin Robinson, you can get those.”
The 12th-seeded Flames cut the deficit to three, 52-49, by holding the Hokies scoreless for nearly four minutes, but Robinson converted to end the scoreless stretch and extend the lead, and Liberty went nearly seven minutes without a field goal to hinder its comeback chances.
Liberty, which used sizzling second-half shooting to upset fifth-seeded Mississippi State in the first round, shot 6 of 22 from the field and 3 of 13 from 3-point range in the final 20 minutes against the Hokies.
Darius McGhee, who hadn’t scored in double figures since Jan. 5 at Florida Gulf Coast, led the Flames with 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting from 3-point range.
His fifth 3 stopped the Hokies’ 16-3 run and briefly gave Liberty some life late in the second half.
“When teams go on runs, you need that one stop or one momentum play to kind of swing things around,” McGhee said.
Blackshear led all scorers with 19 points and six offensive rebounds, and Robinson added 13 points and four assists off the bench.
Ahmed Hill scored 14 points. His 3-pointer to end the first half brought the Hokies to within three at halftime, and sparked a 10-0 run that spanned both halves to give Tech a 36-32 lead.
His corner 3 capped that run.
“He hits the shot and then from there, he turns everything around, and he just becomes the dog that he is,” Alexander-Walker said.
The Flames immediately answered with nine straight points to take a 41-36 lead following Myo Baxter-Bell’s free throws with 15:21 remaining, but they only made one field goal over the next six minutes as the Hokies took control and never let the deficit close to less than five points in the final three minutes.
“I always thought we had a chance to come back, even at the end of the game,” Cabbil said. “When the buzzer went off, it kind of hit me how sad it was going to be to not be on the court again with these guys. Looking back at it, we put in so much work to get to this point. We didn’t feel like we came out and didn’t have enough effort. [Virginia Tech] played good and they beat us.”