A week or two. Maybe more. It’s tough to say when Devin Wilson will be able to take a step back and let sink in the 100-some hours from the time he learned he was going home until the actual jump ball was tossed up at PPG Paints Arena.
But two more hours later, just like that, the long and winding college basketball road of this hometown kid came to a close in his backyard.
Alabama’s potent freshman duo of Collin Sexton and John Petty combined for 45 points, and the ninth-seeded Crimson Tide sent home No. 8 Virginia Tech, 86-83, in the back-and-forth night cap of four first-round NCAA tournament games Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena. And so ends a too-good-to-be-true March Madness experience for Wilson, the Montour High School graduate from McKees Rocks who was a fifth-year senior for the Hokies.
“I thought it was fitting, after all that Devin had been through. … He finished in last place as a freshman, he finished in last place as a sophomore, and then to be able to play in the NCAA tournament, in essence at his home, I think that’s really cool,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said, his hoarse voice cracking the whole way.
Alabama (20-15) survives and advances to face high-powered Villanova just after noon Saturday in the second round, while Virginia Tech (21-12) is left still searching for its first NCAA tournament win under Williams. Last year, he took the Hokies to the big dance for the first time in his tenure, but they lost to Wisconsin in the first round.
Alabama, meanwhile, won one for the first time since 2006 when it was coached by Mark Gottfried. The Crimson Tide hasn’t gotten to the second weekend since 2004 when it made a run to the Elite Eight.
The defeat ends the Virginia Tech career of Wilson, a starter for much of four seasons who did all that was asked of him from the time Williams took over for former coach James Johnson. After making his NCAA tournament debut, Wilson’s time in Blacksburg, Va., concludes with 659 points, 316 rebounds and a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio — not to mention a bevy of intangibles throughout the years.
“You can tell just by the way he talks, he knows everything,” Justin Bibbs, the only other senior on the team who scored 17 points, said Wednesday. “He’s a great leader on and off the court. I mean, he just finds a way to leave an impact on any part of the game, in the locker room. It just helps a lot. It helps me a lot, it helps the young guys a lot and even helps coach Buzz a lot, too.”
Justin Robinson, a junior point guard who shares those duties with Wilson, was Virginia Tech’s engine as he finished with 19 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting. Seemingly making the right play at every turn, he had just two turnovers — one on a controversial call charge with under a minute left that could’ve been a three-point play — and was a perfect 6 of 6 both inside the arc and from the free-throw line.
Robinson called it a “huge” night for Wilson, whose teammates wanted to help get him one more game in Pittsburgh.
“I knew it was his homecoming, his first NCAA tournament game, back in his home city. That’s a blessing,” Robinson said. “He’s been here since the bottom, started the program, and I’m just really proud of him. I wanted to win really bad for him. The outcome isn’t what we wanted, but I’m really proud of what he’s done for me, the program and for himself.”
Wilson received a noticeably rousing ovation when he was announced in the starting lineup, and in 23 minutes of glue-guy tenacity, he got on the stat sheet with a rebound, a steal and also took a charge shortly after the opening tip. He checked in for the final time with six seconds left and the result all but decided.
Outside the locker room afterward, Wilson was subdued, reticently reflective, but also overall appreciative of what he’ll look back on someday and cherish.
“It was cool. I couldn’t really hear it, just because when you’re on the court it’s kind of a little different, but everyone said it was pretty loud,” said Wilson, who was the final starter called. “That’s a good thing, but other than that, it’s a bittersweet feeling because we lost. I don’t know how to really take it all in right now.”
There’s no doubt Wilson’s journey will be one to point to for his former high school coach Adam Kaufman, now at Moon. Of the five WPIAL products whose teams earned a bid to the tournament, Kaufman actually coached two of them. The other was Jarrod Simmons, who led Moon to a WPIAL title last year and saw limited action this season as a freshman forward for No. 16 seed Penn, which was eliminated by top-seeded Kansas in the afternoon.
“What a way to start your college career,” Kaufman said. “I know he’s not playing as much as he wants, but you win the Ivy League, and you’re playing in the NCAA tournament as a freshman. At the end of the day, Devin’s gonna have two degrees from Virginia Tech, and Jarrod’s gonna graduate from Penn.”
For Wilson, make that two diplomas and one indelible memory of being center stage in the place he calls home, with the whole country watching and his inner circle cheering.
“The chance was amazing — you can’t deny that,” Wilson said, chocolate chip cookie in his right hand, waiting for the ride home. “I was sad that we lost — it doesn’t matter where we lose — but the opportunity is always something I try to embrace and try to take wholeheartedly. Just being able to play back here was a great feeling.”