Monday, February 09, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Nemesis in red taken down

BLACKSBURG -- This one was over. Done.

Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg had already lost his composure, his jacket and his mind. Control? Forget it. The Hokies never had it, and they never do against this perplexing opponent. Rage, frustration, disappointment -- the predictable buzz words for this Sunday afternoon.

The second-half lead swelled to 10, then 12, then 18. The crowd was deflated, the Hokies confused. N.C. State couldn't seem to miss. Same old Wolfpack -- average against everybody else, lethal against Tech.

But then something happened. And it said more about these Hokies than the win in Winston-Salem, or that overtime escape in Miami, or that victory against Virginia.

They came back.

They tied it.

They won.

In the postgame locker room, Tech guard Malcolm Delaney called this 91-87 overtime victory the "best team win" of the season.

How could there be any doubt? Season-defining victories can come in a lot of different places and in a lot of different ways. But for Tech, it had to come here, in this fashion, against the nemesis in red.

Six straight times the Hokies had fallen to N.C. State. Usually as the favorite. Usually after entering the game on a high. That might not seem like that many losses, but to those who've followed it, this was among the more bizarre streaks you'll see in sports.

I'd seen all six losses in person, witnessed the missed free throws and turnovers by Tech and the incredible shooting displays by the Wolfpack. I'd seen the dazed faces outside the locker room and in it, heard the players speak about those guys "having their number" and driving them crazy with matchups.

Tech entered Sunday's game as a 7.5-point favorite. But somehow, it made perfect sense when Courtney Fells canned a mid-range jumper near the midway point of the second half, boosting State's lead to 18.

"We were getting whacked," Greenberg said.

Greenberg had already been whacked with a technical foul in the first half, and he nearly got ejected over arguing a foul call. Greenberg's a proven motivator, but this wasn't the way to do it. Not when his players already had suspicions that the fates were against them. They didn't need to believe the officials were after them, too.

"Obviously, you don't want to do that," Greenberg said.

Nor this: Allow State to go on a 8-0 run after the technical to take a 14-point halftime lead.

"I'll be honest with you: I was with him on the frustration," Tech senior A.D. Vassallo said. "I don't know what it is about N.C. State that they give us their best and they don't seem to miss shots and they seem to make every single play. I was really frustrated."

The frustration continued to grow in the second half, culminating with Fells' shot. And if the Hokies wind up in the NCAA tournament this year, you can point to this moment, this fork in the season's road.

Because after that shot, the Hokies got tough. They helped force turnovers on eight of the Wolfpack's next 10 possessions. They stood their ground in the paint. They cut off passing lanes. They started to attack on the defensive end, which led to opportunities on offense and a 14-3 run.

"Every time we put ourselves in a good position, we seem to lose," Delaney said. "This time, we didn't feed into that."

It was Delaney who put them in position to tie it, charging the rim and hitting four big free throws at the end of regulation. Jeff Allen hit a huge putback off a missed shot. Vassallo drained the tying jumper from the left baseline with 17.9 seconds remaining. One more defensive stop -- this one by Allen against Hokie killer Ben McCauley -- and suddenly they were headed to overtime.

If you looked around Cassell Coliseum at that moment -- the fans hopping, the Tech players high-fiving as they headed for the huddle, the State players trudging toward the bench -- you could sense it.

This one was over.


And so was the streak.

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