Sunday, March 01, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies get star struck

BLACKSBURG -- The start of the play looked oh-so-familiar.

Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg had just seen it all recently -- the lowering of the shoulders, the signal before the strike. When was it? The Maryland game? Yeah, Duke's game against Maryland.

The game Duke had just played.

The film his Hokies had just watched.

The scouting report they had just covered.

Force him left! Take the proper angles to stop penetration! Help quickly! All those points had been drilled into the Hokies this week as they prepared to face Duke star Gerald Henderson.

But in the first half of Tech's 72-65 loss Saturday, apparently they were forgotten.

Henderson darted to his right. No resistance. He dug for the baseline. No defensive help.

And then he dunked, two amazingly easy points for a top-10 team that doesn't need gifts.

If you're a Tech player, coach or fan, Saturday's first 10 minutes should still be nagging you today. Because after those 10 minutes, the Hokies were good. They rallied from a double-digit deficit and tied the game. They gave themselves a chance. They showed some resilience and toughness that give you hope moving forward.

But those opening 10 minutes, when Henderson went wild and the Blue Devils darted to a 20-5 lead? Those disappoint. Because the Hokies knew what to do, had been trained in what to do, and they simply didn't do it.

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"We didn't do a good job at all," said Tech forward A.D. Vassallo, when asked about following the scouting report against Henderson early. "We just kind of fell asleep on it. He kept on attacking, and they kept giving him the ball when he was hot.

"If I would have just sent him left, I know my help is on the left side. I just kept letting him go right. We really struggled doing that."

In fairness, Henderson is a star. He's going to make a lot of defenders look bad. Maybe "forcing" him to his left is an unrealistic goal, an egghead's pipe dream.

Or maybe not.

"We did it in the second half," Vassallo said. "You can see the tape. All we did is sit on his right hand, and he went left and he couldn't go nowhere. So it's easier than you think."

Henderson had 17 points in the first half and only four in the second. That led to defensive stops, which helped jump-start Tech's transition offense, which allowed Vassallo to find his shot. It's reasonable to assume if Tech had followed the game plan in the first half like it did in the second, Henderson might have been quiet and the Hokies wouldn't have needed nearly a dozen minutes to reach double-digits in points.

"Not very good attention to detail in the scouting report," Greenberg said of the early going. "And when you do that, good players can torture you. And their good players tortured us. When we started to pay attention to detail, I thought we were really good defensively."

That's the lesson here. There is no margin for mental letdowns this time of year. Missed shots? Yes. Occasional turnovers? Sure. But when the arena is packed and scalpers are buzzing around outside and the network cameras are here and the NCAA tournament is your goal, you have to heed the scouting report. You have to be just as mentally tough as you are physically.

Yes, the Hokies went cold at a lousy time, whiffing on six straight possessions in the second half after rallying to tie. But if they'd defended well early, perhaps they would have had a cushion to absorb the slump.

And true, the officials missed an obvious traveling call on Jon Scheyer that would have given the Hokies a chance to tie with 18 seconds left. But that could have been a meaningless footnote with a better start.

We remember those things because they happened late and Duke won. But the most important thing for the Hokies to remember is a sentence Greenberg uttered in his postgame press conference.

"Scouting reports are only as good as what's digested," he said.

North Carolina visits Wednesday. Another chance to impress. Another few days to watch tape and digest.

And when Tyler Hansbrough or Ty Lawson makes one of those oh-so-familiar moves, perhaps this time the Hokies will be better prepared to react.

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