Monday, February 22, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tech loss etched on glass

DURHAM, N.C. -- When Kyle Singler misses a close-range shot, that has to be the end of it.

When Jon Scheyer misfires alone in the corner, you need to thank the basketball gods for the gift.

When Nolan Smith goes cold and can't seem to knock down a thing, you need to capitalize.

In other words, you need to rebound. Snatch it. Bang for it. Let out a manly grunt as you pull it down, then take it the other way.

Virginia Tech couldn't do that Sunday night. Not often enough. And that, more than any other reason, is why the Hokies missed out on a wonderful opportunity to stun No. 6 Duke on the road.

And a stunner it would have been. The Hokies kept this one closer than any ACC visitor to Cameron Indoor Stadium had this year. With a 12-point margin of defeat -- 67-55 -- the Hokies beat the Vegas spread by a half point. Considering they led this game with less than 10 minutes to play, it's fair to say they outperformed the expectations of many.

But not their own.

"Our kids competed at a high level," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "But that's not what we came here for. We came here to win a basketball game."

And they very well could have. This one had all the characteristics of those Tech wins against Virginia and Boston College and North Carolina, where the Hokies hung around with defense and eventually found a way to get it done.

All of the familiar perils of this place, the Hokies found a way to avoid. So many teams get swept up in the noise and Duke's half-court pressure, dissolving into a turnover factory. But the Hokies had just 11 miscues -- a perfectly acceptable number, especially considering only two came after halftime.

Foul trouble often is a killer for visitors here, but the Hokies did not let it become one. In the final minutes of the first half, Tech had only one starter on the floor because of foul issues.

The rest of the cast consisted of rarely used senior Lewis Witcher and three freshmen: Ben Boggs, Cadarian Raines and Erick Green. Yet they outscored the Blue Devils 6-0 to close the half.

And the biggest fear here? Duke shoots lights out and bolts away early. Safe to say that did not happen. The Blue Devils shot 29 percent. Twenty-nine! At home!

So all the elements of an upset were there.

Except rebounding.

Duke pulled down 23 offensive rebounds in this one. Eight came from senior Brian Zoubek, who morphed into Dennis Rodman for the second time in three games. His 16 total rebounds were one off his career high, set a little more than a week ago against Maryland.

None was bigger than the one he snagged with 7:12 to go following a Smith miss. He put it back in, drew the fourth foul on Tech's Jeff Allen, then hit the free throw to put Duke up 52-47. The Hokies never got it closer than that the rest of the game.

"In the end," Greenberg said, "it came down to our inability to rebound on the defensive end."

This is a dimension the Blue Devils haven't had in recent years, and it will make them a tougher out in the postseason.

"Our identity this year is not like most Duke teams," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Our identity is rebounding and defense."

The Hokies know their identity, too -- toughness, defense and solid ball-handling -- and much of that was on display Sunday night. The challenge now is to add rebounding to that profile.

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