Thursday, March 05, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Finishing touch again lost on Tech

BLACKSBURG -- Seven of 10. That's very dry, very basic, very harsh and very true. The Virginia Tech Hokies have played 10 games since they could last be considered hot, and they've lost seven of them.

The statistic is sobering, only because the Hokies don't feel like a team capable of losing seven of 10. They have a combination of talent -- not too much, not too little -- and scrappiness that makes them appealing. They pack their home arena and keep it hopping most of the night.

But they just don't finish.

Not often enough.

Seven of 10, including four losses at home. Does that surprise you?

It does them.

"I bet if you ask anybody on the team, they wouldn't know that," sophomore guard Malcolm Delaney said after the latest setback, an 86-78 defeat to North Carolina on Wednesday that had that could-go-either-way feel again. "I didn't know that. I'm surprised you just told me that."

Maybe that's because some of these near misses feel like they should be half-losses. A duel with Duke that turns in the final minutes. A back-and-forth with Florida State that ends two points from bliss. A Clemson game that Tech controls most of the way, then lets escape. A rugged outing at Boston College that goes sour at the horn.

And then there was Wednesday night, when the Hokies forged a tie midway through the second half with the No. 2 team in the country before the Tar Heels gained command.

Half-losses, right? The part that goes in the standings is negative. But the other half, that part's good. It's the part that proves you can hang with the best, the part that can help build confidence.

The problem is, all this assumed confidence building and worthiness proving has not translated to wins. And without wins, the NCAA tournament is a fantasy.

"If the final grade ain't good enough, you're not going to make it," senior forward A.D. Vassallo said. "Right now, we're not getting it done. Just by showing that we can do it doesn't mean that we should be in."

Seven of 10, with one more regular-season game to play. And the missing ingredient is nebulous, an intangible that coach Seth Greenberg has been swiping at all year.

"We're not able to just dig down and find something in the pit of our stomach that makes losing unacceptable," Greenberg said. "And that hurts, because we're a good team. We have a chance to be special, and we had a chance to be special tonight. And we just couldn't dig that out."

The Hokies have not lost their self-trust. They still believe they are among the better teams in the ACC, which in turn would make them one of the better teams in the nation.

But what they're done doing is lobbying that they're an NCAA tournament team, and that's probably a good thing. The results don't show it. As of today, they haven't won enough to belong.

They have at least two more chances to show that they do -- at Florida State on Sunday, then in the ACC tournament next week.

"There's no more time to just worry about it," point guard Hank Thorns said. "We've got to just do it."

Bury this team at your own risk. If there's one thing the Hokies have shown under Greenberg, it's that they're never short on surprises. As of today, this season has a sickening taste of what-if to it, but that can change.

"We're not in a coffin, guys," Greenberg said. "Don't stick a fork in us just yet. Just when you think we're dead, we just might fool you."

Not dead yet. But seven of 10 -- no matter how they're lost -- hits the vital signs hard.

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