Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Great nearly good enough for Tech men

BLACKSBURG -- It ended with Virginia Tech fans filing out silently, as Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" played softly on the Cassell Coliseum speakers. The people here -- players, coaches, spectators -- had nothing left to give.

For two hours and 40 minutes Saturday night, if you weren't standing, you weren't breathing. If you weren't hoarse, you weren't human.

We can talk about the ramifications of Tech's 104-100, double-overtime loss to Maryland in a minute. But first, we ought to appreciate what happened here.

We saw one hell of a college basketball game.

Let's face it: Much of the ACC basketball played this season has been an eyesore. Defensive struggles, lousy shooting, turnovers galore, lopsided results.

Then along comes this: the highest-scoring ACC game since 2003, packed with drama and stakes and 18 players donating every drop of sweat they had.

The arena restrooms were off-limits because of a water main break that delayed the game's start by three hours, but fans wouldn't dare leave their seats anyway. Who would risk missing all this? Gary Williams screaming at his players during timeouts, Seth Greenberg coming unglued after an iffy call, crushing shot after crushing shot after crushing shot.

"It was like a prize fight," Greenberg said. "Punches and counterpunches. People getting knocked down and getting back up."

The public address guy kept lying to us. "One minute to play," he'd say. "One minute." Nope. Another five. Then another.

And the most unlikely events kept extending things. A miracle steal by Terrell Bell. A 3-pointer from J.T. Thompson -- a junior who'd hit just one long-range shot in his career. A length-of-the-floor drive by Malcolm Delaney, racing and beating the clock.

Tech forward Jeff Allen said it was probably the most exciting game he'd ever been a part of.

But if you wanted a ton of other quotes like that from the Hokies following this one, you weren't going to get them. Delaney spoke in hushed tones about needing to find a way to recover from this quickly, about how there's nothing to appreciate about a game when you don't come out on top.

"We'll be fine," he said.

Greenberg's uncharacteristically quiet voice barely registered on the microphone in the postgame interview room. But what was he supposed to say, anyway? That his guys failed? Blew it? Let it get away?

Baloney. Maryland won it outright, with poise not seen by a visiting team at Cassell this season and a career-high 41 points from Greivis Vasquez.

"He played great tonight," Thompson said of the Maryland senior. "When they needed one, he had it."

In a year when road wins have been quixotic dreams from ACC teams, the Terrapins have been the exception.

They improved to 7-3 as visitors, the only winning road mark in the league and showed how they'd done it by not letting the deafening noise of an amped-up Cassell fray their nerves.

So they're off to pursue the regular-season conference crown, safely in the NCAA tournament. The Hokies, meanwhile, are left with more to do and not much time to do it. Only a home game with N.C. State and a trip to Georgia Tech remain in the regular season. A quality run in the ACC Tournament almost seems mandatory now if Tech is to make the field.

Delaney thinks they can. And he knows how they can do it.

"Play like we did tonight," Delaney said.

Most nights, that would be enough.

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