Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech finds its leader in a loss

BLACKSBURG -- We should start with the good news, because the Virginia Tech men's basketball team probably could use some this morning. The Hokies have their best player back.

Malcolm Delaney was the biggest weapon on the floor many times early this season. But for Tech's previous four games entering Saturday, he'd stopped being that guy.

He was that guy again Saturday night. Driving. Shooting. Dishing. Drawing fouls.


The Hokies desperately need someone to lead them as they navigate this daunting closing stretch, which began Saturday with a 67-65 loss to Florida State at Cassell Coliseum.

They lost this one not because of slumps or suspensions, bum luck or bad calls. They lost because they couldn't defend the perimeter early and couldn't get a stop late.

They lost because FSU's Toney Douglas is one of the best players in the ACC, and he nailed a tie-breaking bucket in the closing seconds.

They lost because Tech's response to that score -- a well-designed, well-executed play that got their best shooter an open look -- ended with a miss instead of a make.

But for Tech, this one really was a case of lost and found.

Delaney scored 25 points, his highest output this month. And if he can perform like this the rest of the way, the Hokies will have a shot Wednesday at Clemson. They'll have hope against Duke and North Carolina at home. And they'll have a chance when they head to Tallahassee on March 8 for a rematch with these Seminoles.

In other words, this isn't over. But it would have been if Tech didn't reclaim Delaney, the sophomore who'd seen his golden touch turn sour and his trademark aggression go soft.

Tech coach Seth Greenberg noticed the signs of wavering confidence. That's why he called Delaney into his office Friday and had a 30-minute chat.

"I wanted him to attack quicker," Greenberg said. "I really talked to him about the pace of his game."

Delaney started Saturday the way he had the past four games, when he shot 31 percent from the field. He misfired on his first three shots: A 3 off the iron, a driving layup that missed badly off the glass, a perimeter jumper that clanged off the rim.

"I'm not taking him out for missing shots," Greenberg said.

Nor should he. Because Delaney is much too talented, much too capable of doing what he did the rest of the game.

It started with a garbage putback inside. Then, Delaney took a pass from Hank Thorns and drained a 3-pointer, his first since the Maryland game last weekend. The fans let out an enormous roar, sensing he might be on the way back.

They were right.

Another Delaney trey on the fast break sent teammate Dorenzo Hudson hopping back downcourt, wagging his index finger at the shooter. Then Delaney caught and fired from the right wing, canning another 3.

Welcome back, confidence.

In the second half, Delaney scored eight straight points for Tech, giving the Hokies their first lead since the opening minutes.

It went back and forth from there, with Douglas, Derwin Kitchen and 7-foot-1 center Solomon Alabi matching big shots with the Hokies.

Tech's final play originated with Delaney. With 6.2 seconds left, he darted up the court and toward the right sideline, sucking defenders with him. Then he turned and got the ball to Thorns, who rotated it to A.D. Vassallo at the top of the key for a potential game-winning 3.

"We'll take that look," Greenberg said. "Sometimes you make them, sometimes you don't."

They missed this one. They lost this one.

But they also found somebody they'll need, this season and beyond.

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