Friday, January 30, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Want a culprit? Start with the lousy defense

BLACKSBURG -- Virginia Tech point guard Hank Thorns said it best: They lost themselves. Forgot their identity. Backed away from the challenge until it was too late.

Like every game the Hokies have played and will play the rest of the season, Thursday night's 86-82 loss to Clemson at Cassell Coliseum came down to defense. That Tech team you saw in the first half, lighting up the scoreboard? That was exciting, but it was also deceiving. Those 53 points -- Tech's most in a half in at least two seasons -- were rooted on the defensive end.

Stop the other guys.



In that order.

Without the first part, there can be no second and usually no third for Tech. And that's what happened in the second half, when the Tigers stymied Tech's transition game, rallied from 15 points down and handed the Hokies yet another bitter loss in this series.

"We couldn't get stops," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "We weren't getting stops, so we couldn't push it. It's hard to run on a make."

Tech's offense ran like Usain Bolt in the first 20 minutes, knifing through seams, pulling up for 3s and making Clemson's press look like a middle-school operation. The result was a 53-44 lead at the break and an apparent train ride into a tie for first place in the ACC.

But the train derailed quickly during an 18-0 Clemson run fueled by defensive letdowns.

At times, the Hokies played too aggressively. Guard Malcolm Delaney called it "overhelping" -- when a defender adjusts so dramatically to penetration that he can't get back to his own man on the perimeter. That contributed to Clemson's open looks from beyond the arc, where the Tigers hit an uncanny 14 of 25 shots.

At other times, however, the Hokies just broke down fundamentally. Didn't get a hand up. Didn't get a rebound. Didn't rotate to the open man.

"We just lost our composure in the second half," Delaney said.

"We had the game in our hands the whole game. We were killing them in transition, and then once they went on their run in the second half, we stopped running."

If not for that breakdown, this would have been remembered as the night Delaney became a bona fide ACC star. It still might be. On national television, in front of Brent Musburger and Bobby Knight and a hopping crowd of nearly 10,000, Delaney was spectacular. He hit floaters. He hit 3s. He hit midrange jumpers.

He even swished a 50-footer at the first-half buzzer. Teammate Dorenzo Hudson calmly collected the ball under the net, almost as if he expected it.

"He played great," said Thorns, whose improved play recently has allowed Delaney to spend more time at shooting guard. "We knew he was capable of it. He's capable of doing anything that he puts his mind to. He's a hell of a shooter. That's what he does.

"When he hit the half-court shot, we were like, '[bleep]' -- sorry, excuse my language -- we were like, 'God, something special's going to happen.' I was hoping that he'd get 40."

Instead, he ended with 37 -- still the most by an ACC player all season. A terrific performance.

But that won't be the lasting image. The lasting image came at the final buzzer, when Delaney ripped off his headband and flung it beyond the Tech bench.

Unmistakable frustration from a team that had lost itself.

The good news?

The Hokies have been and can be a great defensive team. Today they hop a plane to Boston College, hoping to become one again.

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