Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Held ball holds back Hokies

ATLANTA -- This one was playing out like a movie.

There was the big, tough bully with all the lunch money. And there was the poor kid finally poised to strike back. We'd seen the plot develop, the characters gain high definition, the conflict take form, the training montage inspire.

And with 16.6 seconds left Friday, it was time for the resolution.

The Georgia Dome crowd stood for the resolution. And that says something about what Virginia Tech did here this week, that an ACC tournament crowd was willing to get on its feet and actually make some anticipatory noise.

But this quarterfinal was worth it. North Carolina coach Roy Williams would later call this game "ugly," but remember that this is a man used to seeing his team score 87 points every time out. His frame of reference is a little skewed.

For the Hokies, the opportunity couldn't have been more beautiful: One last possession to try to rid themselves of a season's worth of frustration, one last shot for the NCAA tournament.

Tech trailed 77-76 when Malcolm Delaney took the inbounds pass. Delaney drove toward the middle. The Tar Heels collapsed on him.

Tech's sophomore guard tried to get the ball to Dorenzo Hudson in the corner, but teammate J.T. Thompson intercepted it. Thompson put it on the floor and moved toward the basket. Tar Heels surrounded him.

And just for a second, Thompson's eyes met A.D. Vassallo's. The Tech senior already had scored 26 points. He's the team's best outside shooter. He was standing outside the 3-point line, unguarded.

"He tried to get it to me," Vassallo said, shaking his head. "And it just didn't happen."

The Tar Heels converged on Thompson just before he could let it go. Hands flew. The whistle blew.

Held ball.

Held ball?

Held ball.

Possession, Carolina.

And that's the resolution, however anticlimactic.

"I've got to give them credit, I guess, for good defense," Thompson said with a shrug.

The Tar Heels hit two free throws, Vassallo missed a tough 3 at the buzzer and UNC won 79-76 -- but the resolution was the held ball.

And perhaps the resolution was a fitting one. The Hokies were a pass away. A call away. A shot away.

And in the end, they weren't good enough for the NCAAs.

They weren't good enough at Maryland or Virginia or home against Florida State. They weren't good enough at home against Clemson or on the road at Boston College. And despite a terrific effort here, they weren't good enough to corral that landmark victory they needed.

But at least the movie kid could take some solace: He threw all the punches he had.

"To be honest with you, as frustrated as I am, I feel good that at least we did what we could," Vassallo said. "It was not a blowout. It was not that we didn't execute or played so bad. We played good. We did what we could."

Likewise, Tech coach Seth Greenberg applauded his team's effort and talked about the slim margin of error against a team like UNC, the top-ranked squad in the country with enough depth and resolve to overcome the loss of the ACC player of the year, Ty Lawson, and advance to the semifinals.

"We're not in the living rooms they are right now, I can tell you that much," Greenberg said, a reference to the recruiting disparity.

But that's what makes movies interesting, however they end. And starting next week, that's what will allow the NCAA tournament to consume the nation again.

The Hokies won't be there. They know this. Fourteen losses are too many; 18 wins not enough.

But at least they found something here in Georgia: Further proof that they're not so far away.

A harsh resolution, but a resolution nonetheless.

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