Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Egregious end for Vassallo

BLACKSBURG -- The last shot A.D. Vassallo took at Virginia Tech was about a 15-foot jumper. He let it fly in the postgame interview room and not on the court. He shot it with an empty Gatorade bottle, aiming at a wide-mouthed trash can.

It's a shot he normally would make with his eyes closed. And he missed by a mile.

Kind of summed up his whole day, right?

"Right," Vassallo said, shaking his head. "Close to it."

You won't find a more candid college basketball player anywhere than Vassallo. And the truth is, his record-breaking career was never supposed to end this way, with him clanking 3-pointers and exiting a blowout loss in the NIT. He dreamed of cutting down nets somewhere. When it couldn't be Atlanta or Detroit, he hoped it would at least be in New York.

"It hurts," Vassallo said after the 84-66 loss to Baylor. "I wanted to leave Tech winning a championship and make sure I leave my mark, but it couldn't happen.

"I'm happy the guys worked as hard as they could at the end. I couldn't ask for any more. They were running like crazy all over the place, trying to make something happen and win the game. Regardless if they did it for me or not, I'm really just appreciative of that."

And the fans -- who showed up in impressive numbers despite the 11 a.m. start -- appreciated Vassallo. They gave him an ovation as he left the floor for the final time. Some hung around after the game to salute Vassallo as he did a radio interview.

"He's just good to the fans," said freshman Cait Hinkley, who carried a sign asking Vassallo if he would marry her. "He's like the Macho Harris of basketball."

"He appreciates us," piped her friend, Katie Ellis. "He makes eye contact with us."

Vassallo wasn't universally beloved by fans, despite his prolific scoring. Some questioned his energy level on nights he didn't shoot well -- a fair criticism based on the senior's body language at times -- but Vassallo insists that he never took plays off.

"If I'm hitting shots, people will think I'm playing hard," said Vassallo, who leaves Tech as the school's all-time 3-point leader and its fifth-leading scorer. "If I'm not, people will think the opposite. ... That's just the way it is."

Others pointed to the much-publicized shouting match between Vassallo and coach Seth Greenberg during the Jan. 29 Clemson game as a sign that he was selfish, but the coach said that was an uncharacteristic moment brought on by an emotional game.

"That's not a reflection of A.D.," Greenberg said of the caught-on-camera incident, which got the player briefly benched the next game. "He's been a fierce competitor. He's worked extremely hard at his game. He's a good teammate. He's given us more than we could have ever asked for. I really appreciate what he's been able to do."

What he's done is molded himself into a possible NBA player. With his accurate outside shooting combined with the driving runners he added to his offensive game, the 6-foot-6 small forward has a future somewhere in professional ball. He's one of 64 players who will attend the Portsmouth Invitational next month, a showcase event for NBA scouts.

Better those scouts not watch tape of this one, when Vassallo shot 4-for-17 and made just 2-of-10 from long range. Better they check out his performance against Virginia when he scored 29, his first-round NIT show when he erupted for 33, his three-game stretch this year against Clemson, Duke and North Carolina in which he piled up 72 points.

That's the Vassallo his teammates will miss next year.

"I'll remember a guy that, no matter how many shots he missed at the beginning of the game, he was always ready to take that last shot," forward J.T. Thompson said. "We'll miss him a lot. But just like we missed Deron [Washington], we're going to have to find a way to get past that."

Just like Vassallo will get past this day when he couldn't hit a giant trash can. He should be able to rather quickly.

He's on pace to graduate in May, and he'll be remembered as one of the most outstanding scorers this school had ever seen, a key member of three postseason teams.

"I had a great four years," he said. "I can't complain."

Neither can we.

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