Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Surprised? You may be, but they're not

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The mosh pit lasted maybe 15 seconds.

High fives, bodies colliding, guys yelling for the cameras. Then the Virginia Tech Hokies left the court to a locker room that was spirited but controlled, pleased but not overly surprised.

They knew they could do this.

They'd listened to the radio, watched the television and heard all the accolades thrown Wake Forest's way going into Wednesday's game, and none of that changed a thing. The Hokies entered Lawrence Joel Coliseum with confidence and left with their first huge win of the season, dumping the top-ranked Demon Deacons 78-71.

You want to say "Wow!" and shake your head and say it's not to be believed, but should we really be surprised? In all but one season under coach Seth Greenberg, the Hokies have been at their best against the best, at their toughest against the toughest, at their peak during the most important time of the season -- ACC play.

"We know how to play Wake, you know?" said backup post player Cheick Diakite, who gave Greenberg 22 tough minutes with eight points and five rebounds. "Even though they are No. 1 and they're having a better season, we know how to play against Wake."

He could have added they know how to play against No. 1s. This marked the fourth straight time the Hokies had challenged a top-ranked opponent and the second time they'd prevailed.

They do it by tapping into the common threads among Tech's two most high-profile athletic teams: Toughness and defense.

Football wins with those characteristics, and so do these guys. On Wednesday, the Hokies held Wake to 14 points below their season average. The ACC's best field-goal shooting offense sputtered to a 43.1-percent clip.

A massive Deacons team that ranks second in the league in rebounding won the boards battle by just one.

"I thought our defense in the first half was great," Greenberg said. "That's as good as we can play defensively against that level of team. We shrunk the court, we handled the ball in transition, we held onto the ball on the break, we kept them out of transition, we finished plays and we made shots."

That's a pretty good checklist for basketball success, but you don't get there without preparation.

The Hokies came into this one with a stellar game plan and a sharp focus.

The players said they never went more than three possessions without switching their defenses, from zone to man and back again, confusing the Deacons with their varied looks.

They got 7-footer Chas McFarland in foul trouble and drew two quick whistles on forward James Johnson.

On a night where there was blood on the floor -- Wake's Al-Farouq Aminu needed four stitches to patch up a head laceration -- and boos in the stands, the Hokies did not flinch. And that's a testament to the way they practiced.

"Our preparation's pretty much consistent," Greenberg said, when asked about his team's success against top-ranked teams.

"I think we get back to the mentality of having a chip, that we're Virginia Tech, and this is our chance to carve out a little space and gain a morsel of respect."

Consider it carved and gained.

Without question, the result changes things. Outside perceptions, internal confidence, long-term goals -- all of those evolve when you beat No. 1. The Hokies are now 3-1 in the conference with a victory only they can boast.

We might be surprised.

They're not.

And that might be the most encouraging news of all.

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