Friday, February 05, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech comes through in 'must-win'

BLACKSBURG -- This had the feel of an elimination game, and maybe it will still feel that way in the final NCAA analysis next month. Everyone here could sense the importance.

The towels came out.

Frank Beamer showed.

The ear drums cracked and popped from all the noise.

The heat of the ACC home stretch sizzled at Cassell Coliseum on Thursday night.

This was the window, and the Hokies wiggled through it. Straining? Yes. Contorting? Sure.

But safely through, 74-70 winners over North Carolina in a game Tech undeniably had to have.

The Hokies might never again be four-point favorites against the tradition-rich Tar Heels. UNC coach Roy Williams might never again be so perplexed with his team, desperately seeking the right combinations and motivational words.

Williams' team entered the night as the worst in the ACC in turnover margin, and those numbers won't improve. The Tar Heels gave it away 19 times -- including a whopping 14 from their struggling backcourt -- while Tech committed just 10 miscues.

The Tar Heels remain lost. But you know what? Nobody weeps for them. The defending national champs are still loaded with McDonald's All-Americans and potential galore, and it's only a matter of time before they right themselves.

But it couldn't happen here. Not on this night. Not with Tech's program laced with veterans and poised to make a legitimate run at returning to the NCAA field.

Nobody has to tell the Hokies how much they need to pile up ACC wins, particularly at home, to compensate for their lackluster nonconference slate. The turnaround for Saturday's game against well-rested Clemson is short and daunting. They couldn't miss this chance.

Part of the reason they didn't is because they're becoming increasingly democratic with their scoring. Malcolm Delaney got his points, Jeff Allen got his points, Dorenzo Hudson got his points, but this one also featured Terrell Bell moments and J.T. Thompson flashes and Victor Davila highlights.

Each of the role players is looking more comfortable with the ball in his hands, presenting more formidable a threat.

Allen's enthusiasm level was unusually high -- and most welcome. When he drew a goaltending call on UNC's Ed Davis with less than 2 minutes to go, pressing Tech's lead to five, he emphatically pumped his fist three times, savoring the moment.

Later, when UNC went to the line to try to close the gap, Allen was the one waving his arms above his head, asking for noise.

The fans responded.

A quick word here about the crowd. When the Hokies played the Tar Heels for the first time as members of the ACC a few years ago, this place was at least a quarter blue. Maybe a third. Maybe even closer to half.

Perhaps the biggest sign of this program's rise, then, was that you had to strain to find the interlopers at Cassell Coliseum on Thursday. The Tar Heels still have scores of supporters in these parts, but they're clearly getting fewer tickets from the Tech people.

Those Tech fans were on their feet and waving their towels as UNC brought the ball up the court with under 30 seconds to play, trailing by four points and looking for a last-gasp comeback.

Will Graves got an open look for 3, and his shot looked true. The ball took a lap along the inside of the rim, then popped out. It fell harmlessly toward a waiting Allen.

Ball -- and opportunity -- seized.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email