Friday, January 29, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: No Allen? No biggie

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They won without Jeff Allen. That's the story. The comeback itself was riveting. The overtime shots were stirring. The fact that it happened here, on the rival's home floor, was thrilling.

But for the Virginia Tech Hokies, there's more to Thursday night's 76-71 OT victory over Virginia than all that.

Something enduring.

Tech winning in Allen's absence -- with the 6-foot-7 post player banished to the locker room following a second-half ejection -- showed amazing resiliency, an ability to fight on without its top rebounder and third-leading scorer.

And let's be honest: The Hokies are going to face this situation again.

Allen's crime Thursday was one of aggression, a high elbow to the face of UVa's Jeff Jones after the Tech forward had chased down an offensive rebound in the corner. His offense next time might be foul trouble. Or it might be that odd aloofness we sometimes see from him.

But it will happen, and now the Hokies have the formula to overcome it.

That's been mostly lacking in the past. Allen missed last year's meeting at John Paul Jones Arena after athletic director Jim Weaver suspended him for flipping off the fans at Maryland. The Hokies lost to a struggling UVa team by 14 -- one of those games that separates an NCAA tournament contender from an NIT club.

Two years ago, Allen was suspended two games by the ACC for bumping an official at Georgia Tech. The Allen-less Hokies were drilled at home by Duke in their next game. They did rebound against Boston College in their next outing, but coach Seth Greenberg's mantra is to protect the home court. Without Allen, against Duke, that's a chore.

Two of Tech's three losses this year have come when Allen disappeared. Foul trouble limited him to 17 minutes against Florida State. The Hokies' comeback fell short. Allen went AWOL in the second half against North Carolina -- zero points, no rebounds, zippo viable explanation -- and a potential upset fizzled.

So the Hokies know what it's like to try to succeed without Allen. It's the succeeding part that's been missing. Seeing him escorted off the floor with 13:41 remaining Thursday, a towel draped around his neck, couldn't have been encouraging to any of them.

Could you blame them if they'd gotten down? Allen has flaws, but the only reason he can be so frustrating to watch struggle is because we've seen how good he can be. He's a supremely skilled athlete who can shoot, pass, rebound, block shots and pick pockets when motivated. And Thursday, before he got ejected, he'd seemed plenty motivated.

Suddenly, though, it was UVa -- and this crowd of 13,449 -- with the monopoly on motivation. The Cavs hit the free throws for the flagrant foul, then reeled off two more quick buckets to push their lead to 10. The Hokies, it seemed, had blown their chance.

But then they hadn't. J.T. Thompson responded by playing his best 15 minutes of basketball since he's been in maroon and orange -- selling out on the glass, attacking the rim, running in the open floor.

Point guard Malcolm Delaney did what a team leader does, not only by scoring and distributing, but also by ratcheting up his defense on UVa's top scorer, Sylven Landesberg.

The Hokies went on a late 13-0 run, then refused to get rattled when Sammy Zeglinski forced OT with a contested 3-pointer just before the buzzer. Tech opened the extra period with a 5-0 surge and held on.

When it was over, the jubilant Hokies headed for the locker room. Allen was waiting for them there. According to Delaney, Allen had no idea who'd won the game until he saw their faces.

Then he knew the story. A most unlikely one. A most encouraging one.

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